Monday, December 30, 2013

Is This About a Bicycle?

"Will you follow after me till I have a conversation with you privately?"

On this disconcertingly sunny day before New Year's Eve I am siting in a coffee shop in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. Past my table a smallish policeman wanders casually. He is dressed head to toe in protective gear, including a heavy bullet proof vest and an enormous face shield. No one but me pays him any attention. Heading for the rear of the shop, the policeman carries an object that resembles a briefcase made of oversized Legos, plastered with bright decals whose warnings my eyes can't discern in the dim interior. Some minutes later he re-emerges from the rear and - toylike briefcase firmly in hand - makes his way back across the room toward the exit, slowing his steps, it would seem, as he once again is about to walk past my table. For a moment I am certain - completely certain - that he intends to stop and say this very phrase to me. But he only throws a tired, face-shielded smile my way and walks out, and I remain there - mouth ajar, hand with coffee cup frozen in mid-air, and a copy of Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman splayed open across my lap.

For some time I resisted reading this book, despite repeated suggestions that I really ought to. I shunned it due to an erroneous belief that it was a slapstick comedy detective story type of novel, to do with Ireland and a bunch of cycling policemen; I had so many other books to read that I could not be bothered with such a thing just then. Or so I said to myself. But in retrospect it is clear to me that my resistance to The Third Policeman was due to something else entirely - an intuitive knowing, if you will, that the book and all the information within it could prove hazardous for the delicate state of my mind. Because that it was, and is. While I am normally a quick reader, getting through The Third Policeman took me ages; it was too overwhelming to take in quickly. And at the end, I found myself conflicted between not being able to take much more of it, and not wanting it to end.

If you can imagine Master and Margarita crossed with The Naked Lunch, crossed with A Bit of Fry and Laurie, crossed with Waiting for Godot, crossed with almost anything by Thomas Pynchon… well, The Third Policeman is really nothing like that at all. But conjuring up such a hybrid might prepare you for it a little, maybe.

What is this book like, without giving too much away? I don't want to describe the plot or any of the details. Which is just as well, because what got to me was not any of that, but that the book tapped into - a little too realistically - my own experience of present-day rural Northern Ireland. Before you think this an attempt to be funny, let me explain that I refer not to the absurdity of the plot or specific encounters, but to Flann O'Brien's detailed portrayals of sensations, dialog, scenery and mannerisms. To be sure, he exaggerates and distorts grotesquely, and he re-shapes language. But in so doing he captures the essence of being here more poignantly than any other local author I have read. On top of this - or maybe because of it - his manner of communicating ideas (the kind of insane ideas I try to suppress in myself) is so delicate and subtle, it is easy to underestimate how deeply they penetrate the psyche until it's too late. Honestly, I will need to ride my bike for hours, possibly days on end, just to recover from the effect of this book.

And speaking of. I should move on to the important question for the readers of this blog: "Is this about a bicycle?" Well, since that might be the most quoted line in the book, the answer is a sort of yes. Except that it is really about language, metaphysics, the absurdity of organised society, and the pathology of everyday life. So on second thought… Sure, it is about a bicycle. After all, everything is.

33 comments:

  1. Velouria, I commend your courage in even trying to write about this most wonderful and mind-bending book! I first encountered it in the late 1960's and concluded that it was far more interesting than taking drugs (although it had a certain similarity to dropping LSD). I now have a much-loved hardcover copy to which I return every decade, for the entertainment value, the whack-up-the-side-of-the-head experience, and to remind myself that I don't understand reality as well as I pretend I do.

    I am delighted to have another friend — for that is what I consider you to be from your many shared rides and conversations via Lovely Bicycle — discover this wonderful book.

    ~ David Miller

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  2. My irritation grows by the day as I read your musings about life love and your current exile in Northern Ireland. This small corner of the greater island of Ireland is very rural and isolated in the general scheme of things and whereas I appreciate your general readership would be based in the United States ,and even making allowances for same , the number of those readers who have heard of, let alone read Flann O'Brien would I suspect be very small. You are really grasping at straws with this one. " Boxing Day " is not a term widely used outside the UK as most Irish People refer to the day following Christmas Day as St Stephens Day..I admit I do not know what this day is called in New England ,but I suspect that given your use of the term ,and the tenancy to secularize the entire feast of Christmas worldwide that you are unaware of this . Your current trend is losing me as a reader of your blog , and I suspect I am not alone in this. I wish you a Happy New Year nonetheless.
    Rotherman.

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    1. Most of those who recommended The Third Policeman to me were American.

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    2. They are only words ! Boxing Day, St Stephens Day, the day after Christmas, or also known as the 26th of December. The little place is in Norn Iron, Ulster, the Six Counties, the Province, the UK, or the Island of Ireland ! All different tags for the same thing depending where you happen to be coming from or going to.

      Richard Hass & co must be have some fun at the moment trying to work out flags, parades and the Past. The jargon/terms used must be fascinating.

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    3. Be more optimistic. Look at current trends not so much as secularizing christmas but reviving the Saturnalia.

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    4. How about we all accept that no-one has a monopoly on language, terminology, culture, religion or any of that stuff. If only we could learn to understand each other, or even life, we just might all learn to get on. That’s not about Ireland, btw – never been there, although my New Year’s resolution is to sort my life out to the point where I’m able to go – it’s about everywhere and everything.

      Don’t recall Velouria ever musing about love – that’s nobody’s business but her own – although if you’re referring to her love of cycling and life, there’s surely nothing wrong with that.

      Happy New Year anyway. Peace.

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    5. Alright, everybody take it easy. JohnH is probably just the border collie from that other post.

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  3. OK...now I have to read the book and am about to head out on a vacation thus plenty of time.

    Of will this ruin my vacation? Hmmmmmmmmm

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  4. Intriguing, great sales pitch for the book. Have an ebook version of this for sometime but haven't started it yet. The mention of it during a certain tv series brought it to my attention. Have read some his other works such the Poor Mouth, which crazy enough. Sounds a bit like Murakami from your description a wee bit.

    Hope you had a good holiday. Unfortunately the long term weather is not looking good. A month of storms and rain but places on the edge like up there might just get away with it.

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  5. You have a pretty good track record recommending books so I 'spect I'll go find me a copy of this, I'm going to be SOO disappointed if it doesn't turn out to be mind altering(or at least life changing).

    Spindizzy

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    1. Oh you'll like this one. You'll like it.

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    2. You don't need any help in the mild altering dept., my friend. Please back slowly away from this 'lude-laced tome.

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    3. So, my copy should be here by Friday, not sure what to do in the meantime...try reading Joyce again while listening to the White Album backwards?

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    4. Finally got my copy yesterday, just finished it and I owe you a tremendous thanks for turning me on to this. Now to find everything else I can of his work.

      I can't believe he sustained this for over 200 pages...

      Spindizzy

      P.S. So, what do you suppose your number is by now? I suspect mine is nearing 50%.

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  6. Everything is about the bike until you get a car.

    "What's a bike?"

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    1. Jim, everything for me was about the car until I got the bicycle. The car had to be repossessed for me to see the light, but I’ve cycled everywhere for transportation since, haven’t driven a car for over four years and now it’s like, “What’s a car?” I still have a clean driver’s licence, but I couldn’t care if I never use it again.

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    2. Four years is not a lifetime, but may seem like it to youth.

      I happily drive and ride, the proportions can change from 100% one to 100% another for extended periods. It's just a bike. And it's just a car.

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  7. I read this book years ago when I was studying literature. It gets into your head as you say, and makes you wonder about the mind that created it. To be reading it while in Northern Ireland must be mind boggling, kudos to you for finishing reading it.

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  8. You write well: life, love and the vicissitudes of (cycling policemen on) bikes. N. Ireland, that border collie following you, turf fires, abode, the weather. Flann O'Brien reshapes the language, yes. Why do you say "too late"? Keep riding, and writing. Great stuff.

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  9. I am studying English language : as a fan of bicycle my first target was to open my mind on mechanics specifications. For instance I recently read about famous Sturmer-archer products.
    Nonetheless, the more I improve my vocabulary the more I like reading this blog and all comments: miss V. seems to have the gift of writing, it's so pleasant to read, especially for person who doesn't have an iron heart.
    Musings about live and bicycle let me thinking about another writer named Somerset Maugham, more simple to read rather Flann O'Brien?
    L.

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    1. I would not recommend this book to someone studying English. It's not a difficult book to read, but O'Brien's use of English is unconventional, and you would need to have a native-speaker level of proficiency in order to notice or appreciate this crucial part of the book. So I'd go with Somerset Maugham first.

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  10. Now you should read At Swim Two Birds. The guy you saw was filling an ATM machine?

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    1. There is no ATM machine there, but I think he was going to collect cash for bank deposit from where-ever they keep that. I have seen this a few times now in various bank branches and shops. The banks must hire the policemen to do the collections.

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    2. Very unlikely they were actually Police officers - most likely private security guards from G4S or a similar company.

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  11. I'm not usually one for "commenting", but there's much to commend in Mr O'Brien/Nolan's words and this very blog.

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  12. Here is a question I have for fluent speakers of Irish, if any are reading -

    Are O'Brien's linguistic distortions based on an exaggerated version of how an Irish speaker would speak English, or do they have nothing to do with that? I know he wrote in both languages, so I started wondering.

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    1. I don't know the answer to this question, but on a related note I hope you are learning Irish Gaelic! It should be a piece of cake for a polyglot such as yourself and maybe next April 1st we'll be treated to a post in Irish :)

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    2. Funny you mention it, because I find Irish ridiculously difficult. I can say some random words and a few basic phrases, but have a harder time grasping the overarching structure/essence of it than any other language I've tried to learn.

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  13. Incidentally, it's possible that the man you saw was a Securicor driver, not a policeman. They're high-security couriers and many businesses use them to collect the day's takings, rather than take them to the bank themselves and risk being robbed. Did he look like this?
    http://www.photographersdirect.com/buyers/stockphoto.asp?imageid=2389740

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    1. I've seen those too, but this one was wearing a police uniform

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  14. Everything is indeed about a bicycle--and language and metaphysics and anything else we want. ;-)

    I hope you have a great New Year!

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  15. I read The Third Policeman several decades ago. The person who recommended it to me wouldn't provide much detail about it, either.

    One theme worth mentioning here is the atomic theory. If you find your personality beginning to resemble that of your bicycle's, and vice versa, this will explain why.

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  16. I count my first coming across The Third Policeman - at Edinburgh University, nearly forty years ago - as an ideal moment: here was a book I had not heard of by an author I already admired (from At Swim-two-birds and The Hard Life). I bought it at lunchtime in a bookshop in Forrest Row, took it back to my flat in George Square and read it in an afternoon. I still think it his masterpiece and have been something of an evangelist for it ever since. The tale of its posthumous publication is a sad one - after its initial rejection in 1940, O’Brien pretended to have lost the manuscript, though with characteristic absurdity he plagiarised himself to provide material for The Dalkey Archive, a much inferior work in which de Selby appears in person. (I recently came across this evidence of the Atomic Theory at work http://wp.me/p1Sq73-T - the piece has a link to one about The Third Policeman that I wrote for for Will Meister’s excellent fixed-gear site, 63xc.com, now sadly defunct)

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