By Adam Rivett.
Flann O’Brien didn’t have much respect for the traditional novel as we’ve come to know and scarcely tolerate it. At-Swim-Two-Birds, his first, can barely get started before it’s wandering down the winding track of digression and self-conscious hyperbole, all tongue-in-cheek mythology and undergraduate linguistic bluster. His second (and arguably greatest) novel, The Third Policeman, trades in the virtuoso style of the debut for a plainer prose, but, indisputably, a bleaker world view. Play becomes despair, and youthful drunken rhetorical games grow surreal and morbid. There was, from the outset of O’Brien’s work, a fundamental impatience with received forms. The ‘ideal’ novel that is so often rewarded these days – realist, tightly plotted, tastefully ‘well written,’ and above all consistent – is not O’Brien’s. Yet Birds is one of the 20th Century’s great debuts. Its voice – sardonic, harshly original, comfortable in numerous registers – seems formed and confident from the start. Reading the small amount of pre-Birds material in the new collection The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien, then, gives us, among other things, the only clue we have as to how the man otherwise known as Brian O’Nolan got it so right so fast.