Irishman Flan O’Brien’s surreal black comedy is a masterpiece of sublime imagination and bizarre conviction. His riotous vision of what it means to be very modern and very dead runs to gobbledygook and back, coagulating around a netherworld cosmos inhabited by boisterously fat policemen and their best anthropomorphic helpmates, bicycles, the craftiest of which are supple, demanding, crafty, with “willing female pedals.”
Completed in 1940, it begins as murder mystery but soon enters a punch-drunk netherworld that rotates on its own axis by poking fun at science, numbers and answers. O’Brien (born Brian O’Nolan) plumbs atomic alchemy, the nature of conscience and consciousness, and stirs the mix with insights from “great thinker” and “ballistician” de Selby, a self-styled lunatic savant.
The party gets started when the impressionable narrator, a wooden-legged thug with a penchant for de Selby’s gibberish, joins pub-hand Divney in murdering a wealthy recluse. The deed done, the narrator wants his payoff, but Divney balks — or seems to — plunging his ne’er-do-well accomplice into life with a “vast sequence of imponderable beings.”
True to his beloved De Selby — who has long posited that life is a hallucination and death its most supreme accomplishment (he also thinks night sky merely dirty and in need of washing) — the narrator tries approaching the wacky goings-on rationally. He is a wretched Alice in a wicked wonderland (“regions which I had never seen before”) where soulful bicycles are hunted down by grotesque policemen who loudly stretch out particles of light while ruminating on the color of wind. It’s a “queer” Leprachaun-ville not even the narrator’s witty talking alter ego Joe knows to understand.
O’Brien’s “astonishing parade of nullity” lampoons mortal existence so fiercely it makes death stand tall. Even the narrator is duped, at once point wondering about the “commercial possibilities of eternity.” Many of O’Brien’s people and situations are Disney-like and neutralize macabre mortality (as Jonathan Swift did before him). De Selby, a maker of “hydraulic elysium” but who can’t distinguish men from women (his mother is a “very distinguished gentleman”), is an archetypical mad professor spun from Einstein.
This exceptionally radical lump of comic genius was ironically deemed too bizarre for a world on the eve of world war, yet its lunacy was apt. The rejection all but extinguished O’Brien’s literary hopes and he died a lifelong drunk at age 55. Sadly, not even the 21st-century seems likely to give the tall tale the appreciation it deserves.