December 2003

Randy Schaub


The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien

By no means recently published, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman will, nevertheless, be perpetually new. The literary equivalent of a Tesla invention, The Third Policeman is an astonishingly great book that is so intricate, so improbably effective, that one cannot tell, merely by looking, what makes it tick. The story is a strange dream-journey that at times is so substantial that the reader will find himself double-checking the thickness of the book itself, amazed that the whole thing fits in so slim a volume. If anything, the book presents a problem in that it leaves a reviewer with little to say, beyond a couple paragraphs of repetitive praise.

In The Third Policeman, our hero and narrator, a nameless young man with a wooden leg, assists in a money-motivated killing, and, after trying to retrieve the stashed goods some time later, passes into a strange otherness -- a place that superficially resembles the Irish countryside, but which casually disobeys the normal laws of How Things Work. He encounters a small building of impermanent and shifting geometry which turns out to be the local barracks -- it is here that he meets the policemen. The novel has that special quality -- the fantastic made believable, yet retaining its power to amaze -- that is the hallmark of authors like Borges, Kafka, or Barthelme. The events are alternately frightening, baffling, and hilarious, and are brought into three dimensions by perfect, musical prose.

Much of the book’s humor comes from references to the fictional physicist ‘de Selby’, a sort of anti-Newton whose completely absurd theories sound almost plausible in the framework of the novel’s demonic logic. De Selby, noting that light takes a portion of time, however small, to reach its target, came upon the idea that if a network of mirrors were aligned properly a viewer could actually see into the past through a series of repeated reflections:

“What he states to have seen through his glass is astonishing. He claims to have noticed a growing youthfulness in the reflections of his face according as they receded, the most distant of them -- being the face of a beardless boy of twelve, and, to use his own words, ‘a countenance of singular beauty and nobility’.”

Among de Selby’s other arguments are the existence of night as passing clouds of black, volcanically produced pollution; the idea that all names originate from descriptive, prehistoric grunts (and that by decoding this system of grunts, one could ascertain another’s appearance merely by studying their name); the possibility that the Earth is not a sphere, but an ovoid; and the nature of sleep as a series of minor heart attacks (brought on by exposure to the black air).

But de Selby is merely a side story. The main of the book is devoted to the solution of our young hero’s mystery, and to the further mystery of the bizarre policemen which populate the world he has wandered into. The policemen speak in an infectious, over-wrought dialogue that you’ll have to take care not to pick up yourself. They invent devices that turn noise into electricity. They take gauge readings in a subterranean, industrial version of eternity. I don’t want to delve too far into this storyline, rather I urge you to discover it for yourself. You’ll never ride a bicycle again.

Published by Dalkey Archive press (named after another O’Brien book), The Third Policeman, although not O’Brien’s most famous book, is one that must not be allowed to be forgotten. More images are painted in its 200 pages than in the massive Pulitzer contenders of today, more fantasy and dream than in a million pages of Tolkien or Rowling. Reading this book will actually improve your imagination, your speech, your intelligence. And you’ll lose weight (provided you don’t eat until you finish). Far fetched claims, I know, but they’ll hold true within the strange laws of The Third Policeman, as sure as the Earth is sausage-shaped.

The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 156478214X
200 Pages