The Third Policeman finds his way to At Swim-Two-Birds and lives to write about it, writes to live within it. Riding his bloody bike, he feels his molecules changing, becoming something other, something cyclical. Along the way, he meets Saint Augustine and James Joyce, both of whom are really dead, but only one of whom is an apparition.
The other is a bartender who doesn’t know about Finnegans Wake.
Well, actually, that’s only part of the story and the wrong part. The real Dalkey Archive is nothing like the above. I like the novel, but it’s just not up to the same standard as O’Brien’s (or O’Nolan’s) best two works, The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds, which just happen to be among the very best novels of the 20th century in English.
The novel does start out with great promise, and is funny, well-written and nicely paced. Its construction is solid and balanced. Something, though, is missing. It’s almost as if O’Brien didn’t quite have his heart in it, which is understandable, given the difficulty he had in publishing his earlier works. But any novel that brings back the great character De Selby and has him discussing religion with Saint Augustine can’t be all bad, and this one certainly isn’t. It just doesn’t quite live up to its own premise.
The main character is Mick, and he’s a young man in the state of flux. Not sure exactly what he wants to do with his life . . . and, because of that, he’s slightly susceptible to influences of other characters larger than life. Like De Selby. De Selby is a mad scientist of sorts, straight out of The Third Policeman (which O’Brien could not publish in his lifetime) by way of a sort of distorted self-quotation. He’s a mad scientist who has some rather apocalyptic thoughts regarding the human race, and may have discovered the substance to set that in motion. He also has found the ability to stop time, make wonderful whiskey in less than a month and have discussions with the old Church Fathers, like Augustine. Mick and his friend Hackett join De Selby and witness these dialogues. This is the part of the book that O’Brien should have expanded and expounded in greater detail. It was more than interesting, especially as it took place in an underwater cave.
Mick finds another project to keep him busy. He has heard from an acquaintance that James Joyce is not really dead, and is living in a town north of Dublin (The Dalkey Archive was published in 1964. James Joyce died in 1941). He searches for him and finds a man he thinks is Joyce. This Joyce thinks he’s Joyce, too, but is nothing like the great writer we know and love. And he doesn’t seem to be aware of his own classic works. The reader has to make up his or her own mind as to whether this is really James Joyce (even within the fictional framework) or just a delusional bartender with a desire to be a priest.
The two projects — Mick also tries to prevent De Selby from carrying out his apocalypse — dovetail and Mick’s girlfriend Mary gives him a third choice. The resolution is a bit of a surprise, but not by much. All in all, a pleasant read, well-crafted, well-written, but just not atomically gifted like the two novels mentioned above.
*For an excellent biography of Flann O’Brien, I heartily recommend Anthony Cronin’s No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien.