“Is it about a bicycle?”

This wonderful novel has an interesting history. Written between 1939 and 1940, immediately after At Swim-Two-Birds, it was declined by O’Brien’s (English) publisher, Longmans, who said that “we realise the author’s ability but think that he should become less fantastic, and in this new novel he is more so.” Instead of trying to find an alternative publisher, O’Brien literally shelved the manuscript, and later claimed to have lost it. The book remained unpublished until his death in 1966, and was eventually printed unrevised  the following year. ‘The Third Policeman’ was hugely ahead of its time, and it is sad to think O’Brien did not see it published, or come to influence a major American television series, in his lifetime.

I don’t agree with Longmans’ reader – ‘The Third Policeman is in many ways a straightforward narrative, and certainly more accessible than ‘At Swim’. The storyline is simple: the central character commits a murder; much later, he returns to collect the victim’s cash box. When he does so, just as he reaches for the box, “something happened. It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye; perhaps all of these and other things happened together for all my senses were bewildered all at once and could give me no explanation”.

From this point the naturalistic description ends, and the narrator enters an increasingly disturbing and surreal world, in which the laws of nature are left behind. The murder victim reappears and tells the narrator about a nearby police station. On the way he meets a one-legged man who threatens to kill him.. The police station is even more disturbing: “it looked as if it were painted like an advertisement on a board on the roadside and indeed very poorly painted. It looked completely false and unconvincing.” The narrator is not deterred by this breaking down of reality. Inside the station, the two policeman he meets are utterly obsessed with bicycles, and anything to do with bicycles – it is only later that we come to realise that this is because they are, at least in part, bicycles themselves. This is a result of “atomic theory”: –

“People who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles…when a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerb stones.”

Another of the great joys of the novel are the footnotes concerning the narrator’s obsessive interest in the great scientist and philosopher, de Selby. In a style reminiscent of Kinbote in Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire‘,  de Selby develops a character and story line all of his own in these footnotes, at times threatening to overwhelm the primary narrative. The narrator treats de Selby with huge seriousness and respect, but he is clearly deranged – he comes up with some wonderfully bizarre theories, such as the sausage shaped nature of the earth, and undeterred attempts to prove his theories with unhinged experiments, such as his attempts to dilute water, or see himself in the past by an increasingly distant series of mirrors, which he explains thus:

“If a man stands before a mirror and sees in it his reflection, what he sees is not a true reproduction of himself but a picture of himself when he was a younger man”. 

After a series of increasingly strange adventures, the narrator finally returns to his house where he is told the cash box full of untold treasure awaits him, only to discover the disturbing explanation for the increasingly bizarre, unreal, and fragmented nature of his world.

‘The Third Policeman’ is a brilliant delight, chock full of wit and ideas. The plot twist at the end – and for once I won’t spoil it for you, despite my rigorous policy on this issue – can be seen coming a long way off, not least by anyone who watched the last series of ‘Lost’ (which apparently derived its central idea from this novel) – but that doesn’t spoil it in the least. If you are trying to choose between ‘At Swim’ and this novel, choose ‘The Third Policeman’ – it is lighter, more accessible, simply easier to follow. You will find yourself quoting the kaleidoscope of ideas O’Brien scatters around for a long time to come.