Since the debut of At Swim-Two-Birds in 1939, Flann O'Brien's novels have delighted and perplexed generations of readers with a taste for creative havoc. But while praise has been plentiful, serious scholarly criticism has been lacking. Shea's book remedies this deficiency by analyzing O'Brien's novelistic career in the light of previously neglected material: his early, uncollected prose written for Comhthrom Feinne and Blather, two unpublished manuscripts of At Swim-Two-Birds, and his unpublished letters which reveal some of the hidden authorial strategies of the man behind the masks. Eight years prior to the publication of At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O'Brien launched his writing career with a satiric essay in University College Dublin's student magazine. Through his writing that followed - first in the university publication Comhthrom Feinne, then in his own magazine Blather - O'Brien emerges as a subversive, experimental craftsman with words. An analysis of the early, unpublished manuscripts of At Swim-Two-Birds, composed between 1934 and 1938, is essential for a full appreciation of O'Brien's first and most exorbitant novel. These manuscripts reveal O'Brien in the act of constructing, reimagining, and radically revamping his fiction. Through these early manuscripts, we witness him experimenting with the activity of authoring, testing the volatile, unreliable propensities of words, styles, and narrative arrangements. The Third Policeman, written a year after At Swim, examines the potential of transgression for affirming and perhaps reinscribing a self. The novel focuses on an unnamed, nonexistent narrator who finds himself in a bizarre environment where none of the "normal" cognitive operations hold true. In this twilight zone, the procedures of language through which he has learned to make sense of "himself" and "the world" are abruptly invalidated. In response to his predicament, he probes irregular sorts of coherence, different methods of amalgamation, and modified criteria of communication. Through permutations of phrase making, newerfangled arrangements of words, and transgressive metaphors, he discovers the animating charge of authoring innovation. O'Brien's last two novels, The Hard Life (1961) and The Dalkey Archive (1964), share several attributes. Both were written twenty-odd years after the earlier novels; both appear unusually tame for O'Brien; and both are often taken lightly as enervated, end-of-career efforts by an author who once had good stuff. However, O'Brien's unpublished letters to his friends Niall Montgomery and Niall Sheridan; his agents at A.M. Heath, Patience Ross and Mark Hamilton; and his new publisher during the 1960s, Timothy O'Keefe, reveal that these novels are intended as experiments in subterfuge. The Hard Life masquerades as a tame, straightforward novel as it explores how discourses collapse, sounding only a desperately squalid void. The Dalkey Archive scoffs at the disposition of novels to revolve around character, determining predictable paths limited by spent serial arrangements. By conforming to conventional formats, O'Brien's last completed novel harkens back to his first full-length invention as it powerfully implodes continuity, development, and literary tropes of "redemption."
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