Fifty years after its posthumous publication, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman remains both wildly funny and deeply unsettling. The novel’s genius (in both senses, characteristic quality and brilliance) is to use comedy not as relief from the uncanny but to create it. Something the unnamed narrator says might be applied to the work as a whole: “What he was doing was no longer wonderful but terrible.”

The final scenes reveal that the narrator is not in fact in the Irish countryside, where the book appears to take place, but is dead and in hell, though unaware of either fact. His first words make it clear why he’s there: “Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade.”

The novel’s genius is to use comedy not as relief from the uncanny but to create it.

“Not everybody knows” is how one begins a boast, not an act of contrition. The words tilt askew as he continues: “but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.” The denotations are accurate enough but the connotations are oddly off. The pump is not “made” by Divney, a manager of the narrator’s family farm, but “manufactured,” and not from a “pipe” but from a “hollow iron bar.” The sentence ends in obscene comedy: assault with a bicycle-pump; the irrelevant and implausible eccentricity of Divney having made it himself; the childish superlative “special.” We haven’t begun to fathom the strangeness of this world and words are already failing.

Flann O’Brien was one of the many pen names of Brian O’Nolan—an Irish novelist, satirist, playwright, and prolific newspaper columnist. He published his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, in 1939. It got enthusiastic support from Graham Greene and James Joyce but met poor reviews and sales. His publisher then rejected The Third Policeman. William Saroyan tried to interest American publishers in the manuscript, but when he failed O’Brien/O’Nolan put it away. He claimed it was lost—supposedly telling friends that it had been in his car and the pages had blown away while he drove about the country. The manuscript was found after his death in 1966 and published the following year.

The Third Policeman’s madcap cast includes another voice and another presence. The voice issues from a being who the narrator decides must be his soul, a thing he hadn’t known that he had. It, too, is unnamed, and the narrator decides to call it Joe. Joe is a kibitzer, not a conscience. His existence may hint at something “beyond,” but nothing about him will suggest that a beyond—if it does exist—could be anything high or noble.

The presence is the narrator’s lodestar, a fictitious philosophizing savant named de Selby, who provides one of the book’s epigraphs. It is, characteristically, a would-be profundity undermined by absurdity:

Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.

De Selby erects elaborate castles of nonsense on a foundation of half-understood scientific principles and practices. Because the speed of light is finite, he notes, what one sees in a mirror is a slightly earlier self; thus, by using an apparatus that presents an image only after bouncing it back and forth through a vast array of mirrors, he claims to have looked back in time and seen himself as a child.

Footnotes detail feuds among de Selby “scholars.” They spar, for example, over the interpretation of a manuscript that is totally illegible. A passage called by one “a penetrating treatise on old age,” is called by another “a not unbeautiful description of lambing operations on an unspecified farm,” and by another a forgery.

The collating of all known de Selby commentaries has been the narrator’s life’s work since his time at boarding school. It is also his motive for killing Mathers, his neighbor. Divney easily seduced the narrator by saying that he owed this work to the world and that the contents of Mathers’s money box ought by rights to pay for its publication. Despite calling the murder his greatest “sin,” the narrator seems to attach no moral importance to the word. He cares only about getting his hands on that box, which, after the murder was carried out, Divney hid.

The narrator’s hell is built from allusions to the crime that damns him: the murderers’ omertà (“I don’t even know my own name”); mysterious and alluring boxes; bicycles; de Selbian logic—a “coherent unreason,” as one critic calls it, that almost makes sense. The comedy proper to hell is grounded in unexpected images that knock the reader off balance:

[H]e spoke again, his words coming in thick friendly lumps from his hidden face.

[T]he . . . trees were being pleasingly interfered with by the first breezes.

Hell’s “natural world”—whatever that might mean—is presented as a kind of stage set:

[T]he trees and the tall hills and the fine views of the bogland had been arranged by wise hands for the pleasing picture they made when looked at from the road.

Its elements are “almost too pleasant, too perfect, too finely made,” but the narrator longs to find in them a reality that reassures: “The senses took keen pleasure from merely breathing the air and discharged their functions with delight.”

His own reality is called into question when his promise to Divney—to be so closed-mouthed as not to know his own name—comes true. He can’t produce his name when questioned by the first of the three policemen, Sergeant Pluck. “I was once acquainted with a tall man,” Pluck replies, “that had no name either and you are certain to be his son and the heir to his nullity and all his nothings.” This trope—treating a nothing as a kind of something—is pervasive. E.g.: “The silence was so unusually quiet that the beginning of it seemed rather loud when the utter stillness of the end of it had been encountered.” It seems no stretch to suppose that O’Brien, said to be a “sincere and intelligent Catholic,” has in the back of his mind St. Augustine’s account of evil: it’s not a something but a nothing, an absence, a privation of good. Bringing a nothing into being would be the most sinister act imaginable.

Comedy that puts in question the very intelligibility of the world.

Hell torments the pseudo-intellectual not physically but metaphysically, with comedy that puts in question the very intelligibility of the world. He can’t describe his plight with “known words” and overhears fiendish cursing “too impossible and revolting to be written with known letters.” Bizarre catechisms mock any possibility of conceptualizing the world in a nonarbitrary way. Sergeant Pluck and hell’s other functionaries speak in malaprops and bizarre redundancies—“it is a great thing to do what is necessary before it becomes essential and unavoidable”—their language constantly flailing, as if grabbing at things that it can’t take hold of. Language often fails by placing things in the wrong category: a thief boasts that “every time I rob a man I knock him dead. . . . If I kill enough men there will be more life to go round.” Life as a fungible currency is a funny conceit with a shocking outcome. “Apparently there is no limit,” Joe will say. “Anything can be said in this place and it will be true and have to be believed.”

Grand Guignol gruesomeness is almost entirely absent. One exception is a post-murder encounter with Mathers, who seems not quite alive but far from altogether dead. From Mathers, the narrator learns about the three metaphysical policemen and decides with the logic of a monomaniac that they must know something about the location of Mathers’s money box. He sets off to find their barracks. Rounding a bend, he comes upon a building that “did not seem to have any depth or breadth . . . . I had never seen with my eyes ever in my life anything so unnatural and appalling.” There is nonetheless someone in it, Sergeant Pluck.

A conversation with Pluck is typically a mixture of music hall turn and Monty Python sketch. Has his visitor come about a bicycle? If not that, then perhaps a motorcycle? Something with racing handle-bars? Had he arrived at the station on a tricycle? On a patent tandem? A velocipede? A “No” to all his questions leaves Pluck stumped, believing as he does that the basic categories of crime, if not of Being itself, are pretty nearly exhausted by bicycle theft, cycling without lights, riding on the footpath, bad brakes (which runs in families), and loose handlebars, and that “[b]efore the year is out there is certain to be a pump stolen.”

Pluck’s views on bicycles are closely tied to his de Selbian grasp of the Atomic Theory, according to which everything is made of tiny particles (sheep made from bits of sheepness, etc.) that are exchanged when things come into contact. It follows that the more someone rides his bicycle, the more bits of him will be swapped with bits of the bike. Many residents of the county contain a high proportion of bicycle—it makes up 71 percent of the postman—and the indecency of men and women using one another’s cycles is too obvious to need mention. Pluck therefore keeps his own locked in solitary confinement, “to make sure it is not leading a personal life inimical to my own imitability.”

Upon meeting them at their barracks, the narrator learns that Pluck and a second policeman, MacCruiskeen, seem to be responsible for monitoring and regulating the workings of some mysterious apparatus whose misbehavior would be world-shattering. Though MacCruiskeen regularly reports on “the readings” from this machinery, his specialty is building devices of mind-bending impossibility. One that he shows the narrator is a marvelously detailed box that he calls a “medium fair example of supreme art.” Its contents, he realized, could only be a scaled-down replica of itself, which he extracts—and from that extracts its inner box, and keeps going. The narrator gapes as MacCruiskeen lines up successive boxes on a table and begins to open the barely visible twenty-ninth with tools too small to see.

“At this point I became afraid. What he was doing was no longer wonderful but terrible. I shut my eyes and prayed that he would stop while still doing things that were at least possible for a man to do.” Given an enormous magnifying glass, he is appalled to see that MacCruiskeen has taken out two more. “Nobody,” says MacCruiskeen, “has seen the last five I made because no glass is strong enough to make them big enough to be regarded as truly the smallest things ever made.” Hell indeed.

The eponymous third policeman, called Fox, files regular reports but hasn’t been seen in years. He is said to have gone mad after opening a box in MacCruiskeen’s room that contained an object of a color “new enough to blast a man’s brain to imbecility by the surprise of it.”

The story begins with a succession of such disorienting wonders. It pivots at the midpoint, when a body is found. A man called Mathers has been stabbed in the belly. To impress his superiors Pluck announces that he’s already solved the case: our narrator will be hanged for it as soon as a scaffold can be built.

Agreeing that there’s no harm in explaining “the readings” and other mysteries to a man who will soon be dead, Pluck and MacCruiskeen take him to “eternity,” so called because there time does not pass—a vast subterranean factory of endlessly replicated rooms and hallways and marvelous machinery that can instantly fabricate anything nameable. The policemen feel no awe in the presence of the awful. To them the significance of timelessness is that a single cigarette can be smoked for as long as you like; it’s never consumed. (Wrinkled, stubbed-out cigarettes are a leitmotif.)

When the narrator is on the scaffold, awaiting the noose, his execution is interrupted in order to lay an ambush for an approaching gang of one-legged men. Martin Finnucane, the captain of the one-legged men, is leading a rescue attempt in solidarity—because the narrator himself has a wooden leg (as noted in oddly throwaway remarks at the beginning of his story). The ambush is monstrous: MacCruiskeen, having painted his bicycle with the color that destroys men’s brains, will ride it past the mob as concealed deputies wearing blindfolds wait to hear “a bicycle bell ringing madly and the screams of demented men mixing madly in their darkness.”

Policemen ought to be symbols and guardians of order and rationality, but these two are not the amusing eccentrics they sometimes seem. They are demonic.

MacCruiskeen failed to lock the jail’s single cell, allowing Pluck’s bicycle to creep out and, it seems, offer itself to the narrator. The encounter of man with bicycle is erotic: together they flee, “assisting each other with sympathy and quiet love.” They stop at Mathers’s house so that the narrator can search it for the hidden money box. There he meets Sergeant Fox, the third policeman, for the first time, and the expected Grand Guignol makes its second appearance: Fox has the face of Mathers, the murdered man. He explains that the box, which he’s sent ahead to the narrator’s home, contains omnium, the substance of which everything is ultimately made—and the possession of which in pure form conveys near-omnipotence. Fox has used omnium to create “eternity” as a practical joke on Pluck and MacCruiskeen.

The narrator speeds home, consumed by thoughts of wealth and revenge. His arrival frightens Divney to death, for Divney murdered him years ago by putting an explosive into the money box. In a fugue state the narrator wanders along a “rough and cheerless road” under clouds “ready to vomit down their corruption.” Rounding a bend, he comes upon a building that “did not seem to have any depth or breadth . . . . I had never seen with my eyes ever in my life anything so unnatural and appalling.” He hears footsteps. Divney overtakes and joins him. They enter the building together, and a policeman asks, “Is it about a bicycle?”

The final image, of an endlessly repeating cycle of terror, is foreshadowed by many other yawning infinities, including MacCruiskeen’s nested boxes, de Selby’s array of mirrors, and the replicated halls of “eternity.” If the narrator could step outside his story, he might have chosen as epigraph a famous pensée of Pascal: “The silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me.”

At Swim-Two-Birds, a three-ring circus of multiple intersecting stories, stories within stories, and characters stepping out of their stories and quarreling with their authors—is often said (mistakenly, I think), to be his masterpiece. It was successfully reissued in 1959 and now tends to appear on “best” lists (e.g., from Time magazine and the Guardian).

But I’ll put my money on The Third Policeman, a book that will have a passionate Minority Report following for a long time to come. Why did O’Brien suppress it? The critic Hugh Kenner suggested that he was unnerved by its darkness—that the Fourth Policeman, his Catholic conscience, kept it on the shelf.

It is an astonishing book.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 4, on page 45
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