Do I like the work of Flann O’Brien? I do indeed. The Third Policeman is a head-spinning work, nightmarish and philosophical all at once; At Swim-Two-Birds is irreverent metafiction, where the fraught relationship between an author and his characters blends with mythology, drunkenness, and bleak humor to create something punch-drunk and technically brilliant.
So, yeah, I picked up the new anthology of his short fiction. It has the feeling of a late-period rarities collection — the kind of album that brings together singles, alternative versions of songs, and half-finished home demos into one cohesive work in a way that the artist may never have intended. (For the record, I have plenty of these, both as albums go and as books are concerned.) And given that O’Brien’s own body of work encompasses varying genres and pseudonyms (including that of Flann O’Brien — Brian O’Nolan was how the author was known in daily life), such a wide-ranging approach would seem to be the only way to go.
In here are satirical pieces from early in O’Brien’s career about the fraught relationship between England and Ireland; also in here are the first pages of the novel O’Brien was working on at the time of his death, Slattery’s Sago Saga, which involves a racist American’s plan to entirely supplant the potato in Ireland. It’s a slim volume, with a pair of appendices and one story that may or may not actually be by O’Brien. (Short version: between the author’s name and the themes and images, you can certainly make a good case for its place in his body of work.)
It’s not all curiosities — not by any stretch. Offbeat character pieces, skewed folktales, and the aforementioned fragment of a novel all make for terrific reading. While some of the work in here — particularly “[For] Ireland Home & Beauty” — seems to be designed for completists and those seeking to learn more of O’Brien’s process, this is largely a satisfying read. It’s probably not the best introduction to O’Brien’s impressive body of work, but those already immersed in it will find plenty to enjoy here.
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