Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Favorite Comic Novel? Three for Flann O’Brien

By Jane Ciabattari

Critical Mass readers will know we are now in our fourth year of “NBCC Reads.” This survey allows us to draw on the bookish expertise of our membership, along with former NBCC winners and finalists. This spring's question: What's your favorite comic novel? was inspired by this past year's awards in fiction– NBCC fiction award winner Jennifer Egan's at-times hilarious A Visit from the Goon Squad (which also won this year's Pulitzer and the Los Angeles Times book award in fiction) and Irish writer Paul Murray's darkly comic Skippy Dies, an NBCC fiction finalist. We heard from more than 100 of you (thanks!). We do not tabulate votes or rank the titles under discussion. Instead, we simply give an idea of the authors or particular titles that seem to be tickling out collective fancy. Here's the first of the series, and the most noted comic novel of the lot, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, first published in 1961. (We're including worthy second choices, as well.) Other favorites so far:  Vladimir Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, Richard Russo's “Straight Man,” Kingsley Amis's “Lucky Jim.” We'll be posting further responses and “Long Tail” entries in the weeks to come.

Steven G.Kellman's first choice was a James Joyce favorite:

“James Joyce did not exactly die laughing, but the last novel he read–'At Swim-Two Birds'– was, in his view, 'a really funny book.' Graham Greene evaluated the manuscript and, in the reader’s report he submitted to Longman’s, recounted turning pages 'with continual excitement, amusement and the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.' The funny book with the funny title was published in 1939 and attributed to Flann O’Brien, one of several pseudonyms that Dubliner Brian O’Nolan employed throughout his literary career. At Swim-Two-Birds does not exactly smash china or India or even pumpkins, but it pulverizes Ireland and its cults of Celtic bards, alienated artists, and Guinness stout. The novel is an ingenious, jocoserious labyrinth of linked and nested stories. In one nutty sub-plot, characters in the novel that a fictional author is trying to write rebel against the roles assigned them. They tie the hapless writer up and torture him until he agrees to provide them with better working conditions. At Swim-Two-Birds is a masterpiece of metafictional mirth.”

Thomas Hayden agrees:

“''At Swim-Two Birds,' Flann O'Brien, 1939. Funny at every level from words and scenes to the chaotic plot and the overall meta weirdness of the thing. The gateway drug and the guide for going still deeper down the rabbit hole towards Joyce and Ulysses.”

Jonathan Wilson prefers another O'Brien novel:

“By a wide margin, it's 'The Third Policeman' by Flann O'Brien.  I have to stifle a laugh just thinking about this book, and it's been years since I last cracked it open.  There's simply nothing like it, and I think it will always hold up against most of today's comic novels, because the contemporary stuff often seems to rely on pop culture references or concerns specific to our age.”