I have two Insider posts up this week, one on the Touki Toussaint trade and one on scouting Yoan Moncada, Rafael Devers, and Javier Guerra.
I’ll admit right now that I only partly understood Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, almost as much as I enjoyed his most famous work, the metafictional masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds. He wrote The Third Policeman next, but couldn’t find a publisher at the time and eventually shelved the work and reused a portion of it in his final book, The Dalkey Archive, but the original work came out shortly after his death and has quietly obtained a cult following, one that rose when one of the co-creators of the show LOST mentioned that the book might give viewers a clue to the show’s underlying mythology.
I can’t discuss the book in full without spoiling the ending, but I’ll do my best to cover my thoughts on the book’s meaning without ruining it. The narrator is the ne’er-do-well son of an estate owner in Ireland who inherits the land and farm when his father dies, letting the tenant Divney take over stewardship so he can continue his reading of the incompetent philosopher de Selby, whose work shows up repeatedly in the text and in various footnotes discussing de Selby’s life and some of his most bizarre ideas. Divney somehow establishes some kind of primacy in the relationship and even possible ownership of the estate, which leads in typically nonlinear fashion to the two committing a murder to rob a wealthy neighbor. After several years of an uneasy alliance, Divney finally tells the narrator where the proceeds are, but just when the narrator is about to grab the missing box, things get really weird, with reality turning upside down on the narrator, introducing him to the supposedly-dead victim, the narrator’s own soul (which he helpfully dubs “Joe”), and two policemen who are totally obsessed with bicycles. The third policeman … well, he’s there, but never there, and you’ll have to read to find out how and why.
The novel itself is deeply philosophical, with the destruction of the line between reality and fiction a completion of the blurring that O’Brien began in At Swim-Two-Birds (#52 on my most recent top 100 novels ranking). It’s decidedly postmodern but not metafictional. O’Brien delves into the nature of matter, reverting in a way to ancient beliefs about the fundamental building blocks of the universe, and how we perceive the world around us. He also seems to argue that time is, indeed, a flat circle, although the exact meaning of that statement won’t be clear until you’ve read the book. The fictional writings of de Selby, with whom the narrator is obsessed, are utter nonsense – de Selby tries to dilute water because it’s too strong and argues that night is merely a collection of “black air” particles – lending to the unreality of the narrative while also exposing the narrator’s own tenuous grip on what is real. When the two policeman show him the road to eternity and introduce him to a machine that runs on “omnium” and can create anything you desire, he just tries to grab as much stuff as he can, without any thought to the potential consequences (which you’ll also have to read to learn).
Drawing as much from Sartre and Camus as from Descartes and Einstein, The Third Policeman is delightfully weird yet profoundly disturbing once you’ve finished the book and reconsider what you’ve read. Rather than make a specific metaphysical argument, O’Brien experiments with reality within fiction, moving targets and obliterating lines to create a foundation for humor while simultaneously knocking the reader off balance. It’s an uncomfortably funny read, and one I couldn’t stop pondering for days after I finished.
Next up: I just finished Joel Dicker’s global bestseller The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.