At Swim-two-birds

Francis Spufford - Flann O'Brien, At Swim-two-birds (1939)

In which the wittiest modernist novelist invents metafiction several decades before Calvino and company come on the scene. 'One beginning and one ending for a book is a thing I do not agree with,' says the nameless narrator, so he supplies three complete strands of narrative, ranging from a lovingly destructive parody of Irish mythology to a Joycean version of Dublin drinking culture. At first separate, the book's three levels of reality leak, miscegenate, fuse and eventually conspire to overthrow their author. Elevator pitches for the book are easy to do - Ulysses as written by Groucho Marx! - but the truth is there's nothing like it, and its mixture of send-up and high seriousness was greeted at the time with bafflement. In retrospect it's a brilliant forerunner of whole swathes of formal innovation.

Adam Thirlwell - Flann O'Brien, At Swim-two-birds (1939)

There’s something about stagnation and a feeling that life is elsewhere which seems to lend itself to metafiction, and O’Brien’s great novel of laziness is a masterpiece of inside-out structure. Delighted, destructive, it swaps styles the way a magician changes tricks. All other novels seem needlessly overweight afterwards. 

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