"The Third Policeman" by Flann O'Brien

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Near the outset of Flann O’Brien’s wild The Third Policeman, the unnamed first-person narrator and his business partner Divney settle on a plot to murder Mathers and steal his fortune, purportedly kept in a steel cashbox. In short order the deed is done (by our narrator), after which the narrative takes a turn, plunging us into the confusing, the confoundingly funny, and the downright weird. Fortunately, O’Brien plays with our minds and our language is a most diverting way, and I found myself laughing while I worried for our hero, almost certain to die.

I can do no better than quote a few passages, to give you the flavor of the book: on an outing with a police Sergeant, the narrator and a man named Gilhaney search for Gilhaney’s stolen bicycle (Chap. 6):

We were now going through a country full of fine enduring trees where it was always five o’clock in the afternoon. It was a soft corner of the world, free from inquisitions and disputations and very soothing and sleepening on the mind. There was no animal there that was bigger than a man’s thumb and no noise superior to that which the Sergeant was making with his nose, an unusual brand of music like wind in the chimney. ”

Chapter 6 again:

Before we had time to listen carefully to what he was after saying he was half-way down the road with his forked coat sailing behind him on the sustenance of the wind he was raising by reason of his headlong acceleration.

‘A droll man,’ I ventured.

‘A constituent man,’ said the Sergeant, ‘largely instrumental but volubly fervous.”


Such are the locutions of our characters, but I have not spent any words on the outré buildings, oddball, unexplained plot events, and existential threat which our narrator in turn faces. I have also not mentioned the cockeyed life, work, and honored reputation of the writer, experimentalist, and philosopher de Selby, about whose work our narrator is something of a scholar. Discussions, asides and lengthy footnotes leaven the early chapters, and make their highly comic appearance throughout. I have no idea what the author means with this addition, except to double our fun.

This novel will amuse and bemuse you, and you will wonder a few times, what is the point? There is definitely a point, dear readers, and well worth sticking around through the 19th-century horror passages for. This novel is a classic of its type: dark, atmospheric, and laugh-out-loud funny. 

"The Living Sea of Waking Dreams" by Richard Flanagan

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In The Living Sea of Waking Dreams author Richard Flanagan tells the story of Anna, an  architect working in Sydney, but born and raised in Tasmania. As Anna approaches her sixtieth year, her mother begins to fail, and Flanagan plays out this  family drama against a 21st-Century backdrop of apocalyptic environmental disasters. Society’s resulting unspooling reflects that of Mother Earth’s suffering ecosphere, and all this serves as backdrop as Anna and her two brothers hash out what to do about their own mother. The brilliant Flanagan not only poignantly shows human weakness in the face of loss, he manages to skewer our modern grasping mania for material wealth at the same time. It’s a daring, balanced, bravura performance.

Anna and her second brother gang up on the ineffectual older brother to overrule him and dictate the care their mother will receive. The results are ghastly for poor Francie, the mother, who must endure months and months of progressively more agonizing treatment until she can no longer express herself: she’s unable to repeat her pleas to be let go. Just when descriptions of the mother during her hospital stay become unbearable for the reader, they get worse. Just as Anna’s own perceptions of herself becomes shaky and maybe unreliable, we find ourselves instructed to believe them; this pitches the story into fantastical realms, which ratchets the tension further.

Does all this sound unappealing? Does it sound depressing? It might, depending on your preferences. But: Flanagan’s construct and treatment will reward you with his keen eye for modern greed and arrogance, both personal and societal; the dynamics of present-day privilege, based as it is on balance sheets personal and financial; the utter disregard for Earth’s natural and human resources; a family’s callous treatment of its one member free of mental instability; and a professional woman’s harrowing journey to life-threatening illness.

Almost too many themes to recount: a heritage of family strife, deriving at least in part from a priest’s pedophilia; a natural environment reduced to smoke and ash, which Flanagan uses to confound everyone’s sight and breathing; the injustice resulting in grasping and wielding the power inhering to wealth; the distracting and counterproductive effect of social media; a close-up journey with a woman losing her senses. The myopic attention to these themes is so close and the telling so unrelenting that we are startled by the late appearance of a party from outside, a party who introduces a hopeful element whether we deserve it or not. But that’s the beauty of Flanagan’s work here. He reminds us to keep our perspective on the larger picture and to nurture hope in it.

Stick with this one. It’s distressing, dismaying, and at times deeply pessimistic, but it’s Flanagan. I need not say more.