Posted tagged ‘At Swim Two Birds’

it’s come to this

February 19, 2020

I’ve reached a grim impasse. I’m going to stop reading a book, give up on it, walk away from it, not finish it.

Last weekend I eagerly stopped at the library after work to grab the novel At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan). It’s on every list of the best metafiction there is, so I wanted to read it.

And I tried. I pushed myself to read each word in sequence, losing the narrative but hoping I would find it again. Not finding it but finding another. Yes, I realize there are three stories happening at once in the novel, but I wasn’t sure which story I was on or even if I was still on it or had drifted into the next one. Characters suddenly appeared that I might have been reading for pages but I couldn’t be sure. I had little idea what was going on or where it was leading. I was lost, and I hadn’t even made it a third of the way through the novel. So I made a decision.

I have quit reading it. I’m going to return it to the library unfinished. I just don’t see myself making sense of it, not if my experience of the first third is indicative of the remainder. At Swim Two Birds will be added to the very small list of novels that I never finished.

I don’t like this. I’ve always thought that a novel can redeem itself by the end, that the writer put the thing together in that order or that way with that ending because it worked properly, and so I have an obligation to meet the story on its terms. I don’t feel so obliged this time.

What I am doing now, though, is taking on a novel that some say is the most difficult in the English language: Absalom, Absalom. I had tried reading it years ago and was defeated about half way through, but I vowed I would return to it. It’s sat on my shelf since, taunting me. So this time I’m going to muscle through it.