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The Funniest, and Scariest, Book Ever Written

<strong>Scroll down</strong> to read an excerpt of <em>The Third Policeman</em>.
Scroll down to read an excerpt of The Third Policeman.

Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them -- and so do writers. This summer, talks with authors about their favorite buttonhole books in the weekly series "You Must Read This."

The Third Policeman, originally published in 1944, is the singularly strange crowning work in the fiction of the great Irish humorist Flann O'Brien. It opens with a tale of robbery and murder committed by its nameless narrator, who intends to use the proceeds of the crime to publish his commentaries on the writings of a plainly cracked philosopher named de Selby -- who theorizes that the earth is actually shaped like a sausage and that the phenomenon of night is a form of industrial pollution.

From there on, the book only gets stranger. The narrator finds himself in an alternate dimension not unlike the area surrounding his rural Irish home, but running on an entirely different set of metaphysical laws. The area policemen closely monitor the movements of local citizens, convinced that they are gradually being turned into bicycles. Violent one-legged men roam the countryside. And eternity is an elevator ride away, just to the left of the local river. Yet the real astonishment is reserved for the conclusion, where the narrator discovers some discomfiting truths about his own metaphysical situation. NPR discussed O'Brien's antic, witty book with Charles Baxter, author of the novel Saul and Patsy.

Q. So in the introduction to my reprint edition, Denis Donoghue argues that The Third Policeman isn't a novel at all, but something he calls (after the critic Northrop Frye) a "Menippean satire," mainly concerned with lampooning broad character types like the mad philosopher de Selby.

It's true that The Third Policeman isn't long on conventional plotting. But doesn't it have as every bit the claim to the novel pedigree -- and indeed, to classic stature as a comic novel -- that we'd accord to any number of similarly convention-bending works, e.g., Don Quixote or Tristam Shandy, or the work of Joyce and Beckett?

Novels like The Third Policeman can sometimes throw readers into a panic. They ask, "What on earth (or elsewhere) is this? Where am I? How do we classify this book?" I'm no great fan of Northrop Frye's criticism, and I don't care all that much whether O'Brien's book is a Menippean satire or a literary bicycle pump. What good are these critical categories when we're reading, except to put our readerly experiences into a labeled box?

Certainly if we try, we can find many other novels like The Third Policeman, such as the ones you mentioned, or, more recently, Nabokov's Pale Fire, and virtually all the novels of the wonderful Charles Portis, or the footnote-sprouting fiction of David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers and much other contemporary writing.

Of course, this book is a novel, and as the discourse of our world gets stranger and seemingly more private, the book's content seems more true to life. I'm more interested in the experience of reading a novel like The Third Policeman than in classifying it. Its slightly demented narrative spirals out into wild comedy and the hilarity of terror -- that's what is interesting.

I don't know what world Donoghue lives in, but the characters in The Third Policeman can be met up with any day. They're the people who talk your head off in committee rooms hour after hour, who grab your lapels at the office and spew out their "theories" -- also, not incidentally, the Internet is filled with the crazy contributions of people who are like the characters in this book, the subtly mad who thrive on their obsessive insights and secret knowledge. They're everywhere.

Q. Donoghue also makes the case that O'Brien is a "nihilist" writer, another claim that strikes me as overblown. Isn't the narrator actually being punished -- albeit in hilariously roundabout fashion -- for his misdeeds?

No, it's not nihilism. What confuses some readers is that the tone of this novel is not moralistic, or earnest, but slippery and weirdly offhanded. In it, language is like a fish you've caught that has slipped out of your hands and is flopping around in the boat. We're plunged into a comic nightmare, where language, like that fish I mentioned, keeps going out of control or manages to flop out of the boat back into its native element. (English was the second language that O'Brien acquired, and it must have felt slightly alien to him, as it did to many Irish writers, because he loves to mock its technical vocabulary and its rumbling blowhard sentences.)

The narrator -- who is a murderer -- ends up confronting his victim in the afterlife in a funny but also terrifying scene, and he watches as, slowly but surely, a scaffold is built for his own hanging -- or his "stretching," as the policemen call it. The narrator meets his soul, and as the novel advances, he feels a growing sense of disorientation and "brain-shrinking" fright. He learns that in the world of eternity, you can see treasures but can't enrich yourself with them. This is nihilism? It's the opposite -- a world supersaturated with meanings and consequences.

Q. Right -- and isn't there at least some significance in O'Brien making such sport of the hilariously mechanistic philosophy of de Selby? It does, after all, furnish the narrator's motive for the murder.

I think the narrator is in love with the wisdom of de Selby the way the man on the American street might love the wisdom of, oh, say, L. Ron Hubbard. The narrator's obsession with de Selby's "writings" starts to seem almost sensible after a while. De Selby believes, for instance, that the darkness of "night" is created by an accumulation of soot produced by industrial effluvia, and that "sleep" is actually a form of hysterical fainting required by the body because of the lack of oxygen caused by all this soot. This explanation sounds relatively sensible to me, particularly in cities like Cleveland.

And why isn't it true, as the novel claims, that, when you hit a piece of steel with a hammer, some of the atoms of the hammer go into the piece of steel? Why shouldn't people turn into the bicycles they ride? Anyway, no institutionalized form of wisdom or knowledge is left unscathed by this book. I don't think the mechanism of the cracked world view helps to cause the murder; it's not the world view, I mean: it's the obsession. Show me an obsessive, and I'll show you a potential criminal -- or so says this novel.

Q. Any idea of what role Fox, the actual third policeman, is doing in the book named for him? Is he some sort of gatekeeper for O'Brien's cracked moral cosmos? Or is he yet another wrong variation on the book's seemingly endless collection of wrong themes?

I feel as if I have a very loose grip on who this Fox is, a very loose grip indeed. He is apparently a gatekeeper of some kind, or perhaps yet another one of the semi-human objects that the narrator must get around, or over, in his post-mortal confrontation with himself.

If I possessed a symbolizing mentality, which (the gods be praised) I do not, I would notice that there are three policemen in the story, figures of omnivorous authority available here and there to the narrator in the afterlife in which he finds himself. In the Catholicism in which the author, Flann O'Brien, grew up, there is the doctrinal mystery of the Trinity -- but fortunately I am not a symbol-making fellow, just a plain reader, so there is no possible way that Fox could be a symbol for really much of anything, least of all any entity human or divine that I can think of right now. Of the making of symbols there is no end. Perhaps, after all, the process of symbol-making is like the creation of smaller and smaller chests, treasure chests that are filled, unfortunately, with nothing but smaller treasure chests, which themselves are filled with other chests -- did I mention that one of the policemen is making such chests, the smallest one so small that it cannot, apparently, be seen? I didn't? Good. Such is the logic of this book.

Q. You've probably heard that the book made a cameo appearance on the ABC castaway melodrama Lost. Any theories about the supersaturated meaning of that?

I myself have never seen Lost. However, when Tony Soprano had his near-death experience and, on the other side, found himself in a sort of afterlife standing outside a large multi-roomed house wherein his murder victims lived (with a lighthouse in the distance), I fully expected him to find, somewhere on the doorstep, a copy of The Third Policeman. I can't imagine why David Chase didn't think of it. If he didn't, he should have. That scene felt like something out of O'Brien's novel. As did that old Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner, which has probably been ripped off for Lost.

Q. Has The Third Policeman influenced your own work in any way you've noticed? How did you first come across it?

I first discovered The Third Policeman when someone -- I don't remember who -- recommended it to me, claiming it was the funniest book ever written, bar none. I would agree, if to the adjective "funniest" was added the conjunction and adjective "and scariest."

I had never read anything quite like it, and now, although I have read books like it, I have never read anything of its kind (which is what? a Menippean satire?) to surpass it. It inspired me in several stories to imaginative courage, such as I possess.

Most recently (upon rereading it), I have committed a new story, an homage to it, called "The Untranslated," about the afterlife, which turns out to be a rather large hotel with infinitely receding hallways, and keys hanging out of all the locks. In each room, some part of your life is being reenacted, for a paying audience.

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Chris Lehmann
Chris Lehman is a fomer deputy editor and regular reviewer for the Washington Post Book World. He is now an editor at Congressional Quarterly and covers national politics for the New York Observer. He is the author of Revolt of the Masscult.