Monday, May 24, 2021

Farewell to The Third Policeman and The Commitments - Dublin Soul was about to be born

Let’s say farewell to some books this week.

Isn’t that cover of The Commitments (1987) great?  It is even more or less accurate.  “Jimmy Rabbitte knew his music” (1) – he’s the blond kid holding the picture of James Brown.  He organizes a Dublin bar band that performs twenty-year-old American soul music.  A lot of the pleasure of the book comes from the representation of the performance of the music:

I do not expect anyone to read this page (105, source of the post’s title), but am using it as a visual object.  You can see what Doyle is doing, the simplified Joycean tools he is using.  I associate Joyce with interiority and complex referential patterns, but in Ulysses there is also plenty of people just goofing around in bars, the Dublin cacophony, and Doyle is in that tradition.  Lots of speech, lots of energy, lots of noise.

The particular song represented here is James Brown’s “Night Train” (1961), a key work of 20th century music, which, on this page, in this performance, by means of adding Dublin train stops to the song lyrics somehow converts an amateur bar band cover into an art work full of meaning to the handful of people lucky enough to hear it.  The Commitments is about – this is what it is actually about – how popular art creates meaning.  “Dublin Soul had been delivered.”

The 1993 movie, whatever its charms, completely omits “Night Train.”  Too complex, or something.

The Third Policeman is Flann O’Brien’s follow-up to At Swim Two-Birds (1939), ready to go in 1940 but not published until 1967 due to circumstances and incomprehension.

It was so faultless and delightful that it reminded me forcibly, strange and foolish as it may seem, of something I did not understand and had never even heard of. (Ch. 5)

It is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for grown-ups, where Alice is replaced by a philosophically-inclined Irish murderer and Wonderland is not a dream but something perhaps related.  There is a shared metaphysics, at least, and a similar Carroll-like love of mathematical paradox.  The quotation above is, in context, about a series of boxes-within-boxes that does not go on to infinity but gets close.  This line is about the transfer of atoms from bicycle to rider and rider to bicycle, making people half-bicycle and bicycles half-human:

‘Your talk,’ I said, ‘is surely the handiwork of wisdom because not one word of it do I understand.’ (Ch. 6)

It is just atomic theory.  It is so simple.

Perhaps it is because of the Alice template, just because I understand it better, but I personally find The Third Policeman quite a bit funnier and easier than the meta-fictional At Swim Two-Birds, where fictional characters take vengeance on their creator.  Parts of Policeman are just comedy sketches, proto-Python.  A separate novel, about an insane philosopher and his cutthroat commentators, develops in the increasingly long footnotes.  Goofy exclamations are everywhere: “‘Great holy suffering indiarubber bowls of brown stirabout!’” (Ch. 6).  My kind of humor.  Perversely, then, I plan to sell the book I like more and keep the other, since it is the latter I want to understand better.  It is probably just as funny, once I get to know it.

Farewell to these jolly books.


  1. I love your comments on The Third Policeman. I have at least two copies—possibly three. Wouldn't willingly part with them.

  2. It's such a good book.

    Part of my decision is that my copy is not anything special, and part is to let it loose in the world, so someone else can read it.

  3. I don't think I've read a funnier novel than The Third Policeman. Every now and again I think of the scene with the boxes and break into a smile.

  4. I read the page. I have not, however, read either novel as yet, but I have The Third Policeman and am very much looking forward to it. It is clearly my kind of thing.

  5. The scene with the boxes is really a Lewis Carroll-level masterpiece. Perfect pacing, perfect little variations of the joke.

    Because it gets around character limits, people have taken up the habit of posting entire pages - multiple pages - on Twitter, often with no context or argument. I always wonder if people read them. I sure don't.

    I'm not sure what the Doyle reader who does not know the recording already makes of that text. Maybe there is no such reader. Anyways, it has never been easier to find out what "Night Train" or "Knock on Wood" or whatever sound like, if you don't know. Sing Along with Roddy!

  6. The first part of chapter three conveys the most convincing description of a state of bliss that I have read anywhere. For that alone I love this book.

  7. It is a wonderful passage. The bliss is so deep that the narrator forgets his own name.

    "It was pleasant, easeful walking, I felt sure I was not going against the road. It was, so to speak, accompanying me."