In 1939, Brian O’Nolan wrote At Swim-Two-Birds under the pseudonym Flann O’Brien. The story is narrated by an unnamed drunken college student who lives with his uncle and is writing a book. The narrator creates three separate stories for his book, because “one beginning and one ending for a book was a thing [he] did not agree with.” One story line revolves around Finn Mac Cool and Mad King Sweeney, another is about John Furriskey, and finally, one is about Pooka MacPhellimy, “a member of the devil class.” Soon, the three stories intertwine and chaos ensues.
I found this book very hard to follow, particularly when the three stories began to mix and mingle, which resulted in five or six separate plot lines. Despite the confusion, it was one of the most enjoyable books I have read in a long time. Apparently, James Joyce liked the book so much that he learned passages by heart to recite at parties, and Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, and Dylan Thomas have also commended it.
At Swim-Two-Birds, O’Brien’s first novel, considered to be his “masterpiece,” is a deeply nested novel, with stories contained in stories contained in stories. Though bizarre, it explores themes of imagination and the intersection of fiction and fantasy, ordinary life, mythology, and human nature and suffering.
There is limited structure in the book, despite it being broken down into titled paragraphs and some sparse explanations of muddled conversations. This book was overwhelming at times, but I’m glad I struggled through the difficult parts, as it really was a comical, ironic, sentimental, brilliant satire.
Remarkably, O’Brien incorporates all of the aforementioned themes while creating a wonderfully hilarious novel. I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who wants to try something quirky and new. In order to fully grasp this novel, however, I would recommend having a working knowledge of Irish vernacular and mythology.
Overall, I loved this book. Its quirks made it memorable. At Swim-Two-Birds is definitely going to be on my mind for quite a while!
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.