At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

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Watched AJ’s The Holy Mountain again yesterday. The triumphant “Zoom back, camera!” conclusion is earned not just by the preposterousness of the story, nor the constant interplay between levels of fantasy and reality throughout, but also by the film’s core of sincerity. THM is a savage takedown of societies that have become tolerant of and cooperative with fascistic commerciality, trivialisation of history, perversion of progressive ideals, and artistic degeneration; on some level it’s a sympathetic though appropriative adaptation of old mystical manuals that advocates a regenerated social self-consciousness. The meta rupture is consistent with the barmy genius and sleight of hand throughout THM but also with its sense of urgent appeal.

ASTB is a milestone in metafiction, indulging almost from its first page in multi-narrative intertwinement and intrusion, though, like THM, there’s a sense of climax in the trial scene. Like THM, it’s barmy and dripping with talent, as in the deft evocations of traditional verse and legends. Its humour is mostly lyrical, particularly in the timing and the believable Dublin registers – the middle section covering the Pooka’s journey with the Fairy to the birthday celebrations becomes increasingly farcical. The profanity, while derided on publication, is always funny too, from the first page’s description of Finn MacCool’s prodigious bulk: “three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain-pass.” It’s not funny the whole way through though, and again I think this is in part because of an underlying urgency.

It’s possible I’m just weighed down by the density. Joyce comparisons are of course apt and appropriate but Ulysses is comparatively nimble, in some of its registers. While there are frequent interruptions from imported adverts and reference works, the predominant authorial voice here is latinate, polysyllabic, declarative; sense from the beginning of legal documentation attempting to establish objectivity (there’s some chat at one point about author’s failing to make their characters distinct, giving them all the same voice). Fits also with the structure of titled sections. There’s lighthearted satire of Joycean predispositions to academic discussion in both the internal characters and the students, but the concluding section is a bitterly tragic musing on superstition. Throughout, the difficulty of finding a position from which to speak (suggestions on wiki of polysemy as postcolonial anxiety seem very interesting).

This instability is tackled most honestly, at plot-level, at the plane on which I most enjoyed spending time: the lazy, often literally supine student. Definitely something of the (much funnier) Lucky Jim about his sozzled, sociable destitution, literary absenteeism and quietly troubling tendency to retreat into private imagination – ASTB may not be the “portrayal of Dublin to compare with Joyce’s Ulysses“, as it is proclaimed to be by Mr Penguin Editor, but it is perhaps a kind of Merrie Ireland. The insecurity is also a literary one, with a stinging attack on the novel form on p.25 standing out as a portable truth, presaging (in its suggestion of the novel as a reference work for already-written characters) the aporetic conclusion(s).

In all, looking back through what followed it, I don’t think it’s travelled entirely well. We need less formal smartarsery in 2017. Its two-pronged attack, consisting of merciless disregard for closure and capricious indulgences in quantity (scanning almost entirely as deadpan, except for one hilarious undercutting of poetic filibustering on 129), is hardly welcoming. Read it again, and read about it before you do. At the very least you can take home A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN in your back pocket.

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