As usual, my faculties pale when discussing a book like this: I both suspect and know from psychical, wordly evidence that others have written much more of more importance about this book. I enjoyed; is there anything else to say? I had read about it several times, in snippets along the lines of the Internet, before I stumbled across it at my local university library. I found out it wasn’t published until after O’Brien’s (or Brian O’Nolan, his real name, though you all know that I’m sure) death; I almost wanted to make the cliched statement that ‘genius goes unrecognised in its own time.’ True, perhaps, but again, how many people have remarked that about The Third Policeman? The narrator is an unpleasant, lazy, murderer; the plot has no clear trajectory (all the better for it!) and the laughter consists almost entirely in dialogue and a series of escalating oddness. This book would never win a Governor General’s Prize…had it been Canadian.
I read the novel, or at least the increasingly strange second half, when ill with fever. I had trouble sleeping those nights, and had a succession of potent strange dreams (are there are other sort, the subconscious is liberation: there, my friends bid on marrying themselves, I discover strange urges for women I previously did not care for, I murder my father or I mourn my mother becoming a bed of clams: that is the way it must be). When I finished The Third Policeman, my fever was at its worst, and I recall distinctly recall that the entire night was a nightmare of De Selbian philosophy. De Selby is a notorious, unconventional and erratic (and dead) philosopher; the unnamed narrator is a student dedicated to producing a codex of all critical analyses of De Selby’s odd ‘system’ of thought (night is black air, water can be diluted, the world is a sausage etc.). This leads him to murder.
Throughout the book, footnotes and the opening of most chapters explain in growing detail De Selby’s theories and the academic turmoil and assassination around his works. Structurally, as the novel progresses, De Selby’s presence becomes more and more obvious, the footnotes invade and overwhelm the text, and the action, such as it, is shaped and reflects De Selby’s philosophy and the narrator’s own belief in it. And so, my dream on that height of fever reflected and reveberated with De Selby; it became De Selbian, an endless repetition of the mirrors De Selby believes allows himself to see his younger self, or the ever shrinking, infinite sequence of wooden chests built by the policeman MacCruiskeen. The strange thing is that the idea, such as it, in my dream was not really something De Selby was propose; it was a poor example of circular logic: might makes right, so right is always mediated by might. A fairly accurate representation of the world system, true, but not De Selbian; in my dream I assume it was, and I was haunted and pursued.
The novel is odd, yes, a word totally inadequate to the languorous plot, oneiric scenes and cryptic, obscure characters full of spoonerisms, solecisms, and malapropisms. The strange revelations of atomic drift between man and object, the existence of omnium, which can be anything, the room eternity where everything can be made but nothing carried out, are presented matter-of-factly, common knowledge to everyone by the narrator. He’s upset by all this, at first, then grows to accept it, the kind of weariness one expects of humour such as this; acceptance of the absurdity of the situation, an absurdity I feel inadequate to express properly. I have nothing much else to say about this book. Indeed, this book has ‘cult literature’ or ‘every hipster must read’ pronounced loudly from its pores; everyone has an opinion on it, and obsession come easy to The Third Policeman, as it does to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Fight Club. It’s better than those novels, the opposite end of learned, nerdy literature fetishism rather then gonzo outrageousnous, but all the same…
I was going to remark on bikes and their dominance in this novel, and why it led me to re-read The Supermale by Alfred Jarry…but lo and behold, someone has beaten me to it. So read this.
“Not excepting even the credulous Kraus (see his Do Selby’s Leben), all the commentators have treated de Selby’s disquisitions on night and sleep with considerable reserve. This is hardly to be wondered at since he held (a) that darkness was simply an accretion of ‘black air’, i.e., a staining of the atmosphere due to volcanic eruptions too fine to be seen with the naked eye and also to certain ‘regrettable’ industrial activities involving coal-tar by-products and vegetable dyes; and (b) that sleep was simply a succession of fainting-fits brought on by semi-asphyxiation due to (a).