A Delicious Sort of Hell

Not ten minutes ago, I finished Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. I had no idea what to expect, since I remember nothing about The Poor Mouth other than some absurdist comedy, and little more about At-Swim-Two-Birds other than the fact that I absolutely loved it. (I really should go back and reread the latter one.) I’d even forgotten the few places where I’d heard about The Third Policemen, although I suspect it was via luminaries from the cultural studies and/or contemporary philosophy crowd/s.

At any rate, the fact that I couldn’t even wait for a day to pass after having read it to scribble something out about this book should hint that I either adored or despised it. I’m glad to say it’s the former. Among other things, I kept realizing why theorists, for example, probably can’t get enough of it; in the midst of what seems to be inexplicable, oddly poetic looniness are send-ups of scholarship, an interesting take on the soul and eternity, and, what made me most jump out of my skin with excited recognition, a couple of disquisitions on the (here unnamed) notion of homo sacer that Giorgio Agamben explored so beautifully in his book of the same name.*

This tale of a wandering assassin is never what you think it’s going to be, and although you could technically breeze your way through it, doing anything other than taking at least some sort of time to really digest the words in front of you will amount to a loss. At times, I was pulled up short in the midst of madcap scenes by passages of enormous beauty whose sincerity was hard to guess at. For example, this:

Down into the earth where dead men go I would go soon and maybe come out of it again in some healthy way, free and innocent of all human perplexity. I would perhaps be the chill of an April wind, an essential part of some indomitable river or be personally concerned in the ageless perfection of some rank mountain bearing down upon the mind by occupying forever a position in the blue easy distance. Or perhaps a smaller thing like movement in the grass on an unbearable breathless yellow day, some hidden creature going about its business– I might well be responsible for that or for some important part of it. Or even those unaccountable distinctions that make an evening recognizable from its own morning, the smells and sounds and sights of the perfected and matured essences of the day, these might not be innocent of my meddling and my abiding presence.**

The publisher’s notes that function as a sort of afterword in this edition provided a few quick and interesting facts, such as the detail that the people behind the TV series Lost were influenced by and featured the book. Although I never got far in that series, this new information doesn’t surprise me– but I’m definitely going to use that tidbit with friends who did love said show, in an effort to put out the good word about The Third Policeman.

I’m sure that, as things settle in my brain, I’ll have more, and more interesting, thoughts to convey about this little book. At this point, though, I’m simply feeling like the high school kid who has some really good gossip and can only revel in the pleasures of sharing something juicy. What a treat to have something so good to talk about!

 

* I’ve been dying to know whether or not Agamben used O’Brien at all in his studies ever since I came across the latter’s examination of the man who essentially, although he can be killed, can’t be considered to have been murdered, since the state doesn’t accept him as a possible legitimate victim of such a crime.

** Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (London: Harper Perennial, 2007), 164.

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