At Swim-Two-Birds, Guinness, and Finn McCool’s Arse

Giant's Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway
–Carved out by Finn McCool

In the mid-nineties, the Guinness company ran a contest that entailed writing an advertisement within a certain number of words.  First prize for the winning ad was a pub in Ireland, and you could see the pubs themselves on-line. (Winning this prize is the impetus of the plot of the novel The Night Swimmer)

Anyway, I remember my entry and remember loving its major image…150 orphans playing handball against the wide girth of Finn McCool’s arse.

Obviously I didn’t win. (I arrogantly told myself that I didn’t win the contest because it was run by American advertisers who didn’t pick up on the allusion!)

ATSWIMTWOBIRDS And I remembered that ad because the image came from Flann O’Brien’s novel,  At Swim-Two-Birds. And last week I began a post with a poem “The Workman’s Friend” that came from the same novel. That post got me nostalgic for O’Brien’s work. A man of many pseudonyms, O’Brien is best known for the comic novel At Swim-Two-Birds, although my funnest memories are of The Third Policeman and The Poor Mouth, the latter which O’Nolan wrote in Irish as  An Beal Bocht under the pen name Myles na Gopaleen. (And both of which I first read in Connemarra and Sandymount respectively.)

At Swim Two-Birds is a rich novel of basically three stories, a meta-fiction in which a character created by the protagonist writes a novel from which his characters gang together with other characters in the novel to avenge their creator.  It starts with a university student, who spends more time in his bed and in the pubs than in the classroom. Besides drinking, the student is also writing a novel about a man named Dermot Trellis, a middling writer of Westerns. It is his characters who intermingle with each other, who plot against him, and who attempt to live their lives apart from their author’s intentions, after they drug him.

All of this is mixed with a great deal of Irish mythology and ancient poetry (wryly translated by O’Brien himself). From McCool to Mad King Sweeney, from pookas to fairies, an entire ancient world enters this most modern of novels and interacts with O’Brien’s and Trellis’s fictional creations.

To say there is a circularity to the plot is perhaps inaccurate, and certainly understated.  It is more like a mobius strip in another dimension.  One thing turns on another to make way for other things that reflect on something else. This jibes very much with the Greek epigraph which translated means “For all things change, making way for each other.”  For yes, indeed, one character after another makes way for one other character after yet another.

But most memorably, it is laugh-out-loud funny.

So I began re-reading At Swim-Two-Birds again this week and  I started thinking of comic novels in general.

I feel they are best enjoyed by the young.

Think The Gingerman and Catch-22. Think Tom Jones and Confederacy of Dunces. Think Lucky Jim and Reuben, Reuben.  Each presents a hero who is outrageously set up against the straight-laced establishment, whether it be the military bureaucracy, the world of academia, or society in general.  And each hero takes part in the most outrageous antics–antics that only a young soul could aspire to and believe in.  It was once said that an uncle of mine in the army tried to received a medal buck naked, much like–and before–Yossarian in Catch-22. (Unlike Yossarian, he was thrown in the brig.) For my 21st birthday, a good friend of mine wanted to rent a kangaroo suit for me to go bar hopping in, as Sebastian Dangerfield did in The Gingerman.  I still chuckle at the peccadilloes that the Scottish poet Gowan McGland gets himself into in the uptight Connecticut suburbs in Reuben, Reuben. (Apparently, the plot was based on Dylan Thomas’s drunken stay in the town in the 1950s.)

But these antics and nose-thumbings are the actions (and dreams) of younger men.  And, also, the world has changed.  I remember once reading The Gingerman on a bus and being accosted by a woman who yelled that Sebastian Dangerfield was the most misogynistic character in all of literature.  I had to admit she was right. In fact, I’d go one further: he is one of the most despicable anti-heroes of all time.  Yet, he is still extraordinarily funny.

But, young or old,  the truth of  all comedy is a certain sadness mixed with the high-jinx. Perhaps the perception of each changes with age–but they both are undoubtedly there. They both need each other.

And so, once more I am churning through At Swim-Two-Birds, and I am still laughing out loud.  I just hope that there is no one on my bus protecting the interests of characters who are thought up by characters who are thought up by characters.  Cheers.

Book Review: The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant

A goat that walks on its hind legs…a woman who swims in the dangerously cold North Atlantic…hallucinogenics…two Irish pubs…a violent underworld…a blind goatherd…a dubious fiddler…9/11…an ancient tragedy.  These all are elements that come together in the magnificent novel The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant.

I wrote about this novel in an earlier blog; I had only been a few chapters in at the time and was focusing on the urge to live somewhere else. Indeed, the examination of this urge is part of the narrator’s train of thought. But I had no idea where this story was going and how vividly it would be told.

The novel is about an American couple who move to Ireland, when the husband wins a pub in the town of Baltimore in southwestern County Cork. The husband has aspirations of writing and feels that the pub will give him ample time and material to do something great. He certainly has both–but is unable to fashion anything with it.

The woman–the narrator–has an rare skin condition, a subcutaneous level of fat, that allows her to withstand extremely low water temperatures. She is an open sea swimmer and the move to Ireland allows her to revel in this activity, in water that is frigid and dangerous. She spends much of her time on Clear Island, where she swims and begins to attract the attention of the islanders as well as of a little goat that walks upright. The islanders are very suspicious of strangers–blow-ins they call them–and they are particularly concerned about this young woman who swims in their harbor. They are also going through some large shifts that threaten to change their centuries-old way of life.

As Elly, the narrator, spends more and more time on the island, she begins to feel, to a small degree, a part of the island–but she knows that this is a false feeling. She befriends a blind goat-herder and  learns of his heartbreaking personal tragedy, and then discovers a much larger tragedy that once wiped out an entire generation of islanders–except for two. She also begins to see that her marriage is not strong enough to withstand the battering that the move across the ocean occasions. She watches it erode and sadly understands why this is occurring.

The novel is many things–it is a domestic novel about marriage infused with a magical realism built on folk lore and village life.  It is a novel about enterprise and failure. About love and its withdraw. About the fear of strangers and the resistance to change. Elly attempts twice to swim to Fastnet Island–something no one has actually ever done–and in describing this momentous feat, Bondurant elevates his already lofty writing into something sublime.  Neither attempt is successful, but both are certainly memorable. In a whirling world of deep open-sea, hallucinogenic visions, and towering inspirations, Elly’s swimming anchors this already magnificent read.

Because of the epigraphs taken from the journals of John Cheever and the various allusions to him and his stories throughout The Night Swimmer, there have been the expected comparisons between the two. I find this a little wrong. For while the epigraphs from Cheever’s journals are appropriate and thoughtful,  and the thematic focus on dualities similar to that in Cheever’s own stories, the writing of The Night Swimmer seems so much fuller, fatter, more exuberant.  Cheever’s writing, for me, reflects the dessicated suburbias that he depicts, and reflects it in a much leaner style of writing.

In many ways I wish that the novel ended one chapter before it did. There is an epilogue of sorts, a tying-up of things, that I found unsatisfying. I would have rather left Elly on Clear Island, with both her and the reader trying to figure out the impact of what just happened, of where the future lies.