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Literature / At Swim-Two-Birds

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"One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with"

Flann O'Brien's first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds is a comic, metafictional work containing an intertwining celtic knot of stories wherein characters try to overthrow their author's rule by drugging him, among other things. The stories largely consist of characters taken (or to use O'Brien's words, "stolen") from a vast number of preexisting works. The cast ranges from aspiring authors to ordinary Dubliners to Mad Sweeny.

Undoubtedly one of the most convoluted books ever written.

Synopsis of the plot: The book begins by introducing its unnamed narrator, a student living with his uncle. The book continually switches between first-person "biographical reminiscences" of the student's life, and a number of stories he had been writing in his spare time. After explicitly stating that "A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author...," we are presented with exactly this. One of these stories involves the Pooka MacPhellimey, a species of human Irish devil with magical powers. Another follows John Furriskey, a character born already an adult and with a full memory without any experience to account for it. The third talks of the legendary Irish hero Finn MacCool. Furriskey, we later learn, was created via aestho-autogamy by Dermot Trellis. Trellis is an author who created Furriskey to be a character in his work, an anvilicious novel demonstrating the power of sin to corrupt even the most pure. Trellis has Furriskey and his other characters stay with him at the Red Swan Hotel where he can keep an eye on them and ensure that they do exactly what he says. Unfortunately, Trellis cannot control his characters while he is asleep, leading several of his other characters to drug him. Finn MacCool, meanwhile, had been recounting the tale of Mad Sweeny, another character from Celtic mythology. Later, the Pooka is met by the Good Fairy. After discoursing on the nature of good, evil, even and odd numbers, and kangaroos, they begin a journey to the Red Swan Hotel. Along the way, they are met by a large number of other "stolen" characters, among them, Sweeny. It's eventually revealed that the event which brought the Pooka and Good Fairy to the hotel was the birth of Trellis's son by one of his female characters. When Orlick, as he is to be named, is born, his mother dies in childbirth. Due to the loss of his mother and the influence of the Pooka (who won influence over Orlick from the Good Fairy during a card game), Orlick - only half-fictional, on his mother's side, which gives him powers that Trellis' other characters lack - is inspired to write a book about his own father, whereby he may punish him after trapping him in the artificial framework of a story. Conclusion of the foregoing.

The book was more or less created as a means for O'Brien to play with metafiction tropes. Extremely impressive, given that the work was published in 1939. Unfortunately, although it received much critical acclaim (even from none other than James Joyce aka Captain Mind Screw), the book only sold 244 copies before the warehouse in which it was stored was destroyed in World War II, and was only reprinted again in 1950.

The Third Policeman, another Flann O'Brien novel, also has a page on this wiki.

Catalog of tropes contained within the book:

  • Affably Evil: The Pooka is a devil who implants evil into Orlick's mind and later engages in torture in Orlick's story, but he's also quite possibly the most polite and reasonable character in the book.
  • All Just a Dream: The protagonist decides to make Trellis' torments in Orlick's story into this trope, when he gets sick of torturing the character.
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation: Done intentionally by Flann O'Brien. The tale of Mad Sweeny as recounted by At Swim is filled with O'Brien's ... creative translations of Middle Irish poetry. For example, a line that is usually translated as "the bell of saints before saints", is translated by O'Brien as "the saint-bell of saints with sainty-saints".
  • Bilingual Bonus: The epigraph written in its original greek ... and then not attributed to a source.
  • The Casanova: Furriskey, created by Trellis to be the wicked antagonist of his book. Trellis himself accidentally fills this role for poor Sheila Lamont.
  • Death by Childbirth: Sheila dies giving birth to Orlick.
  • Designated Villain: Invoked by the narrator and then subverted. Furriskey's sole purpose as created by Trellis was to be a depraved monster, but after Trellis is drugged, Furriskey marries a consenting wife and ends up not really being any more evil than any other given Trellis character.
  • Flat Character: Trellis writes all of his characters as this, with no backstory or genuine motivation beyond the needs of the plot, hence Furriskey being born well into his own adulthood. Of course, when Trellis is asleep, all the characters - Furriskey included - become better-developed personalities. Trellis' own creator initially sees his uncle this way, simply as a pompous crank, but at the end, he realizes there's more to it than that.
  • Gainax Ending: The narrator gets a more or less sensible ending. His story, however, ends on a sort of surreal tangent instead, continuing from the aftermath of what happened to one of the characters when his characters decided to torture him.
  • Genre Refugee: Slug and Shorty are literally refugees from the Western stories of another writer that Trellis has borrowed. Being the kind of book it is, they are also regular Irish folks, their Western adventures apparently happening between Ringsend and Irishtown in Dublin.
  • Heel Realization: At the end of the story, the narrator (very subtly) realizes that he has been unfair to his uncle in constantly thinking the worst of him.
  • Interactive Narrator: Trellis and his characters are able to interact with each other fully, as they basically inhabit the same world.
  • Kangaroo Court: The trial of Trellis, in which his own fictional characters serve as judges, jury and witnesses against him. It all builds to his execution, which is averted at the last moment by the protagonist (Trellis' author) reconciling with his uncle.
  • Kudzu Plot: Partially subverted. The story branches off in a kudzu-esque manner from the very beginning, then merges into and folds back onto itself.
  • Metafiction: Played with and explored in nearly every possible manner.
  • Mind Screw: The various plotlines may be a big confusing to keep track of, but for the most part they all follow a pretty simple Nested Story logic excepting a few easy-to-undestand rules... that is, until the characters in one story begin writing a story about their author. Which physically affects him.
  • Nested Story: The entire point of the book is to explore this.
  • No Name Given: The protagonist of At Swim-Two-Birds, like that of The Third Policeman, is never given a name. Except for possibly near the very end when a character addresses him as Horatio.
  • Postmodernism: Technically actually a modernist work, but it presages a lot of what would later become postmodernism. You could call it proto-postmodern.
  • Purple Prose: The book is not to be read unless you are willing to be continually assaulted with this. Usually done humorously or parodied, but played straight a few times, particularly by Finn and Sweeney.
  • Rage Against the Author: What happens to Trellis.
  • Reality Subtext: In-Universe. The events in the protagonist's life noticeably influence what's going on with Trellis in his story; for example, a lecture from the narrator's uncle on the sin of sloth is what prompts Trellis' novel to be moralistic in tone, and the reconciliation with the uncle leads to the cessation of Trellis' tortures.
  • Stealth Pun: Possibly unintentional, but as Furriskey is examining the room he wakes up in, he checks the first and second walls for a door and finds nothing. He then finds the door on the third wall and leaves, knowing he's on the second floor of a building and thus there would be a window on the fourth wall.
  • Stylistic Suck:
    • At one point in Orlick's story, he wants to portray a number of his characters as being extremely intelligent and educated. He accomplishes this by having them recite arcane and unrelated facts for a few pages. Just before that he wants to portray his characters as charismatic, so he describes them with over-the-top praise and descriptions of them being perfect examples of a human.
    • When Shanahan takes over the writing of the story from Orlick, the prose suddenly becomes simplistic and crude, and the Pooka loses all his erudition and speaks in colloquial Dublin dialect expressing Shanahan's exact thoughts.
    • The narrator's story as a whole is filled with lots of dialogue that just consists of the characters discussing fairly unimportant things and agreeing with each other, and three of the main characters are written nigh-identically. Naturally, lest the reader of At Swim think this was unintentional on O'Brien's part, a character who the narrator shows his book to outright criticizes these very problems, to which he responds to by listing the several ways in which the characters are different using long and obscure words to describe such inconsequential traits as their nose shapes.
  • Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome: Invoked, with both Furriskey and Orlick being born as adults. See Flat Character.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: The main narrator's Antiquated Linguistics would come across as tedious and bland in the biographical reminiscences, if not for his subject matter, which is mostly him getting drunk.
  • Surreal Humor: At one point the Pooka and the Good Fairy have an extensive argument as to whether the Pooka's wife is a kangaroo.
  • Title Drop: The title comes up exactly once. When Finn MacCool is telling Sweeny's story, it's briefly mentioned that for a time Sweeny stayed by the church of Snámh-dá-én. In english: Swim-Two-Birds. We never come across the title again.
  • Write Who You Know: In-Universe. It's not hard to see that Trellis is modeled on the narrator's uncle.

Conclusion of the foregoing.