‘At Swim-Two-Birds’ is quite unlike any other novel I have ever read. On the whole that is a good thing, but it also means that it can be a challenging, almost impossible read. Let’s start with a plot summary, which I have borrowed from Wikipedia:
At Swim-Two-Birds presents itself as a first-person story by an unnamed Irish student of literature. The student sets three apparently quite separate stories in motion. The first concerns the Pooka MacPhellimey, “a member of the devil class”. The second is about a young man named John Furriskey, who turns out to be a fictional character created by another of the student’s creations, Dermot Trellis, a cynical writer of Westerns. The third consists of the student’s adaptations of Irish legends, mostly concerning Finn Mac Cool and Mad King Sweeney.
In the autobiographical frame story, the student recounts details of his life. He lives with his uncle, who works as a clerk in the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. The uncle is a complacent and self-consciously respectable bachelor who suspects that the student does very little studying. This seems to be the case, as by his own account the student spends more time drinking stout with his college friends, lying in bed and working on his book, than he does going to class.
The stories that the student is writing become intertwined with each other. John Furriskey befriends two of Trellis’s other characters, Lamont and Shanahan. They become resentful of Trellis’s control over their destinies, and manage to drug him so that he will spend more time asleep, giving them the freedom to lead quiet domestic lives rather than be ruled by the lurid plots of his novels. Meanwhile, Trellis creates Sheila Lamont (Antony Lamont’s sister) in order that Furriskey might seduce and betray her, but “blinded by her beauty” Trellis assaults her himself. Sheila gives birth to a child named Orlick, who is born as a polite and articulate young man with a gift for writing fiction. The entire group of Trellis’s characters, by now including Finn, Sweeney, the urbane Pooka and an invisible and quarrelsome Good Fairy , convenes in Trellis’s Red Swan Hotel where they devise a way to overthrow their author. Encouraged by the others, Orlick starts writing a novel about his father in which Trellis is tried by his own creations, found guilty and viciously tortured. Just as Orlick’s novel is about to climax with Trellis’ death, the college student passes his exams and At Swim-Two-Birds ends.
The reason why I have exceptionally quoted this plot summary at such length is to give you some idea of the labyrinthine complexity of the plot. I struggled with following the action of the narrative until I came across this summary (after extensive research, of course) and used it as a crib sheet to help me follow things. I have no idea what this says about me as a reader, but I recommend it as an approach for anyone else who struggles as I did. Of course the other point that jumps off the page from this precis is the bizarre, post-modernist nature of the text. Characters writing their own endings and launching attacks on their authors is something no-one (that I know of) had done before O’Brien, certainly not in novel format, and it still remains outside the normal realms of fiction, belonging more to comedy or comic books.
The third reason why the novel presents challenges to the reader brought up on traditional narrative is the innovative use of found texts. I’ve not been able to establish precisely which parts of the novel were copied from other texts in ‘At Swim-Two-Birds’, other than the letter from a tipster recommending a sure fire winner, but I suspect the section providing random ‘useful’ facts during Trellis’s trial, the summary of the events of the poem ‘The Shipwreck’ (pages 201-211) and the long list of ‘flowers and plants rarely mentioned in ordinary conversation’ on page 192 are examples. The latter two instances are dropped into the text almost entirely at random with little or no contextual reason for their use. The use of complex Irish names and place names added yet another layer of difficulty for this reader, and if you think I am exaggerating the point, try this:
“Sweet to me your voice, said Caolcrodha Mac Morna, brother to sweet-worded sweet-toothed Goll from Sliabh Riabhach and Brosnacha Bladhma, relate then the attributes that are to Finn’s people.”
Most of the humour in the novel derives from O’Brien’s surreal approach to his subject matter, such as it is. The closest thing I can compare it to is listening to a drunk telling you a long and unstructured story, where no-one behaves rationally, and where he keeps forgetting what he was telling you. Occasionally glimmers of sense can be perceived, but this never lasts long and we are soon back in old Ireland, with the Pooka speculating on whether his wife is a kangaroo, or whether the invisible fairy in his pocket is planning to set it on fire.
This certainly all adds up to an unusual, even unique novel.