Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Laughed till I cried

Books don't often bring me to tearful laughter, but while I was reading Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman I found myself weeping with the hilarity of it.

I won't quote the passage; I think you need to read it in context, but it has to do with atom exchange and bicycles, and the solemn way the policeman pronounces on the connection.

I read the hilarious bit in bed just before I went to sleep. Waking at dawn the next morning I thought of it again, and this time bypassed the laughter. I sobbed silently, remembering it.

We all know how closely conflicting emotions are linked: love and hatred - who hasn't experienced this at one and the same time? But perhaps, after all, there is only one emotion, and we experience different aspects of it. (Reading The Third Policeman may lead to you speculating on matters like this, as it offers strange explanations of almost every science possible)

Indeed, De Selby, the writer often quoted in this book (and whose whacko theories are detailed at length in extensive footnotes) puts forward the proposition that east and west, and north and south, are not four directions but two, because, for example, if you go far enough east you'll come to the same point as if you went west. He extrapolates further to say that in fact there is only one direction, because from any given point you can get to anywhere else.

Fittingly, I have conflicting emotions about this book. At the beginning I loved it so much I wanted to read as slowly as possible to savour every bit of it. By the next afternoon (due largely to the effects of de Selby) I read wearily on through the greatest headache and dizzy feeling I've experienced for some time, due either to the effects of the mad illogical logic of The Third Policeman, or the onset of a flu. I had the slight feeling that I might be going mad.

(A sucker for punishment, the next book I read will be O'Brien's At-Swim-Two Birds, of which there is one copy in our local library system, at Byron Bay, and is available, no doubt winging (or swimming) its way towards my local library at Lismore as I write.)

But what I really like about O'Brien (not his real name) is the language. I've decided that what I value most in writing is surprise, which is another way of saying originality, I think.

Take this passage:

...  a house stood attended by three trees and surrounded by the happiness of a coterie of fowls, all of them picking and rooting and disputating loudly in the unrelenting manufacture of their eggs. The house was quiet in itself and silent but a canopy of lazy smoke had been erected over the chimney to indicate that people were within engaged on tasks. Ahead of us went the road, running swiftly across the flat land and pausing slightly to climb slowly up a hill that was waiting for it in a place where there was tall grass, grey boulders and rare stunted trees. The whole overhead was occupied by the sky, serene, impenetrable, ineffable and incomparable, with a fine island of clouds anchored in the calm two yards to the right of Mr Jarvis's outhouse.

The world of this book is not our world; it is both like and unlike it. It is, in effect, akin to madness, but it is a book that will make you both think, and see things differently. 

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