Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Third Policeman by Flan O'Brien — 200 pgs


Book CoverIn this surreal and absurdist novel, a one-legged gentleman farmer is easily swayed into concocting the murder of a man believed to have a black box full of money. His partner in crime, the loathsome Divney, refuses to reveal the whereabouts of the black box for several years, ostensibly to avoid discovery. This forces the farmer to spend every waking moment in Diveny's shadow, for fear that he'll recover the box without sharing its contents. When the location of the box is finally revealed, the farmer goes off to retrieve it and discovers that old man Mathers, the man who was supposedly murdered, is actually alive and well. Trying to concoct another way of separating the box from his owner, the farmer devises a plan to go down to the police station to fill out a false theft report, only to discover that a world of strangeness and unpredictability awaits him. As the policemen revolve around him in nonsensical circles, the farmer discovers a secret plot involving the melding of bicycles and men (!!) that threatens to take over the countryside. He also learns that these seemingly benign men have the secret keys to eternity and the ability to create fabulous and wonderful inventions that defy the mind's capability to perceive them. Though puzzled by what the policeman present to him, he soon discovers he's in serious danger and his only hope for survival is a congregation of wandering one-legged men and a strangely female bicycle. Both uproariously funny and puzzlingly sinister, this work of comic genius written by Flan O'Brien was published posthumously in the 60's and is still as representative of the enigmas of life today as it was back then.

A few months ago I was at a party and met a wonderful girl by the name of Melissa who's studying literature in college. We got into a deep conversation about books and she told me she was taking a literature course based on the books that have appeared in the television series Lost. I was greatly intrigued by this class and wondered aloud why there were no classes like this when I was in college. As she was describing some of the books she was reading, she began to get very animated about this particular book. From what she told me, it sounded like a trip and a half, and like something that I just couldn't pass up. When she got to the part about the relationship between bicycles and humans, I knew I was going to read this book and it was going to be fantastic. I wasn't disappointed in the least and I can only assume that Flan O'Brien was a genius, not only in the way he creates this particular story but in its off-the-wall narration. It was one hell of a weird ride, but I must confess it made my top book of the year, which says a lot considering I've read some pretty good stuff.

This book is told through a deceptively simple style of prose. Though we know that the gentleman farmer is up to no good and is, in effect, a murderer, I couldn't help but get invested in his tale and come to feel for the man. When he finally goes to retrieve the black box from its hidden location, old man Mathers has some seriously disturbing and puzzling news for him. It's not very clear just what this news means, but the farmer is not only flummoxed and enraged, he's also scared and sets out to find a way to separate this box from its owner. The first sections of this book differed from all the rest in that most of it was easily comprehensible. Farmer, box and old man were eerily interpreted but pretty straightforward. Had this book continued on in this vein, it wouldn't have been anything to write home about. Luckily for me, the book picked up a lot of steam and became increasingly bizarre and funny as soon as the farmer stepped inside the police station.

As the farmer arrives at the station house, he realizes that its dimensions and attributes are physically impossible. This troubles him greatly and he begins to think that coming to the station to fill out a lost item form may have been a bad idea. He has no idea what's in store for him when he finally meets the first two policeman. These policeman are inordinately consumed with bicycles and question the man endlessly about them, a fact that the man doesn't understand at all. When a strange gentleman comes into the station and admits that his bicycle has been stolen again, the police mount a search for the missing bike and our perplexed farmer finds out that in this strange place, bicycles are a thing of intentional menace and danger. This confuses him and the reader shares his feelings of confusion and foreboding, knowing that there is much about the bicycles that we just cannot know. It's also very comical that there is so much malice and weirdness associated with the bicycles, and a lot of this story is utterly absurd and nonsensical. It's all a whirlwind of comic perplexity, and as such, the only thing I could do was let it wash over me with a sense of ludicrous wonder.

Meeting the second policeman puts the farmer at a greater sense of unease, for the man is an inventor of the highest order but his inventions make absolutely no sense in any way that inventions should. One example is the finely crafted box. This box is about palm-sized and is beautifully inlaid with intricate carvings and gold. As the farmer examines the box, he comes to discover that this box hold two hundred identical boxes of the same quality, each small enough to fit inside the other. The smallest box is so tiny that the naked eye cannot discern it, and this, in addition to all the other wild inventions, has a frightening effect on the farmer. As more and more inventions are introduced to the farmer, he becomes increasingly more afraid for reasons the reader can't understand, and decides that he will no longer speak to the second policeman for fear of what may happen to him. Some of these inventions are amazingly bizarre and mystifying and others are silly and nonsensical. The reaction of the farmer is one that confuses the reader and it's not until the end of the book that we understand why.

When the policeman reveal their knowledge of the farmer's misdeed, they decide to build a gallows and hang him. Despite the fact that they have shown him their fabulous inventions and the secrets of eternity, they must punish him for his crime, and set off to get things prepared. This is when the farmer remembers the deal he struck with the leader of a strange band of one legged men, and he calls to him for help. When a female bicycle comes to his aid, the farmer escapes to the hovel of the third policeman and learns the truth about all he has seen and heard. This third policeman is off the grid and is operating under the guise of secrecy. He reveals the real secret of eternity that is hidden to all but him and he shares all his secrets with the farmer. Now the farmer is deathly afraid and goes to seek out old Divney for help. But when he reaches Divney, things become frighteningly clear to him and the farmer realizes just what has happened to him and why he's trapped in this absurd and strange conundrum. All of this sounds menacing but it's also comically brilliant and unlike anything I've ever read before.

I know my review of this book doesn't do it justice, and frankly, I doubt if any review ever could. It was a strange amalgam of farce, satire and horror, and told a fantastical tale that kept me flipping pages to see what O'Brien would come up with next. Nothing was predictable or ordinary, and even the hidden nuances of the book were strangely surreal and wildly funny. A lot will probably never make sense to me, and in a way it reminded me a lot of Alice's time in Wonderland. It had the same feel of crafty nonsensicalness and was full of amazing and unorthodox components that made the whole wildly atypical and divergent from anything I have ever read before. If you're in the mood for something strange that will knock your socks off, this is the book for you! It's a book I will be pondering over for a long time.

18 comments:

Amy said...

This sounds like just about the strangest book I've ever heard of! It also sounds fascinating and intriguing though. Although I am confused, your enthusiasm clearly shows :) I'll add it to the wish list :)

TheBookGirl said...

Hm...not sure what I think about this, lol. I love your comparison to Alice in Wonderland -- that's sort of the feeling I had just reading the review. I have never watched the TV show Lost, but I now am wondering what other books they referenced on that show, if this is representative.
I have to confess to not reading much absurdist literature (truthfully, I can't think of any right now), and I'm curious as to whether you have, and whether you think this is a good one to start with?

Zibilee said...

BookGirl,
This is actually the first piece of absurdist literature that I have read as well, but I enjoyed it so much that I am going to seek out more now, for sure!

Jenny said...

This does not sound like something I ever would have picked up normally, but your review and your mentions of how great it is really have me wondering if I should... LOL. I'm curious about this "absurdist literature" concept. Can you think of anything else other than Alice in Wonderland that would fit in that category?

Steph said...

Oh, oh, oh! This book sounds so very wonderful! I'm really digging books that are off-the-wall and absurd, so this sounds like something I'd really love! Sounds like a great party if it led you to this book!

Zibilee said...

Jenny, as far as absurdist literature goes, I think that Flan O'Brien has a few others that would definitely qualify: The Poor Mouth, The Hard Life, and At Swim, Two Birds. I think the books of Albert Camus are thought of as absurdist, as well as some of the books from Kafka (particularly The Metamorphosis) and also Patrick Suskind's book Perfume, though I admit that that one was very, very dark. I think also that some of the books by Vonnegut might be classified as absurdist as well. It really is a new genre to me, but I am really excited about perhaps making it something that I try to sample on a frequent basis.

Melissa M said...

This sounds like a crazy book! It's not one I would have even considered, but your review has me interested!

bermudaonion said...

Wow, your enthusiasm for this book is so evident. I'm glad you loved it so much, but I wonder if it's too fantastical for me.

College classes have definitely improved since we were coeds!

Aarti said...

I have no idea whether I would like this book or not, but it sounds very quirky and I know you loved it so I'm very interested :-)

Sandy Nawrot said...

First just let me clarify that I think you describe books better than the average person. But I got so very confused when reading the synopsis! I was just sitting here shaking my head and saying "What? What?". I don't understand, but maybe I shouldn't. I just need to know that it is weird and wonderful and you loved it. Which is good enough for me!

Suko said...

The motto for this book could be, "stop making sense". But your review is quite lucid, and your enthusiasm is strong and clear. The Third Policeman will be added to my TBR list.

Veens said...

What a strange story!And there is a whole lot of absurdist literature out there - I didn't know this at all!

Nymeth said...

This certainly sounds unusual! I'll keep it in mind for when I'm in the mood for strange. I love that you compared it to Alice :)

Darlene said...

This does sound like a very strange book. Not sure it's one I would like but I'm glad it was a good read for you.

Jenny said...

I have liked absurdist fiction and absurdist plays in my life before, but I don't reliably like them. But I did see this (I remember now!) on a FiveBooks list of comic novels, and both that review and yours here now made it sound unmissable.

Meghan said...

I think this was a book that was just TOO weird for me. I like fantasy, but your classifying of it as "absurdist" probably explains just why I didn't like it! I like even my fantasy universes to make some sense, not just get stranger and stranger. Glad you enjoyed though!

Jenners said...

I'm intrigued .. but scared. I'm not sure I even understand your review really. But I'm curious ... and what can I lose by trying it?

Literary Feline said...

Absurdist and surreal seem like apt descriptions of this novel given how you described it. It sounds like quite a read! I am glad you enjoyed it. I'm certainly curious now.

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