An excerpt from his fine article on the man, the myth, the legend . . .
The banning of almost every serious Irish contemporary novel also created the strange literary culture in which O’Brien revelled, one in which officially approved reading was narrowed to theological reflections, Gaelic sagas and peasant narratives while the thirst for contemporary stories was slaked by imported cowboy stories and cheap crime thrillers.
O’Brien’s main novels draw much of their humour from the absurd conjunctions implicit in this unlikely mix. At Swim sets heroic and folkloric figures (Finn MacCool, Sweeny, The Good Fairy, The Pooka MacPhellimey) literally alongside the cowboys Slug and Shorty. The Third Policeman draws on detective stories and science fiction as well as Catholic theology and mediaeval Gaelic literature.
More importantly, O’Brien’s novels draw their dark energy from the sexual repression that lay behind the censorship. They are remarkable for the almost complete absence of either the nuclear family or healthy sexuality. Instead of being merely desolate, however, this absence of family and sexual fulfilment is linked to O’Brien’s great conceit in At Swim – that of literary creation as the male substitute for giving birth.
Writing is sex for an all-male, sex-averse society. Its children are conceived without all the bother and awkwardness of having to deal with women. In the bedroom that is the world of his narrators, congress with oneself generates the only life that is available – the life of words and stories.