Impressions of Flann O’ Brien’s The Third Policeman

I have had the good fortune in life to recognize at an early age that I did not need to finish every book I started. In some instances I stop reading because I don’t find the writing particularly engaging (as in the case of my first and second attempt at Wuthering Heights). In other instances, the writing is too dense or strange for me to understand at whatever stage in my life I’m at (such as when I tried to read Naked Lunch or Gravity’s Rainbow *Someday!*). With The Third Policeman though, my first reading attempt was halted by something entirely new to me — a feeling that my own notions of the world were built on shaky foundations and continuing reading may rupture my sense of being.[1]

The book was first assigned to me by a professor in preparation for a summer abroad trip to the Republic of Ireland in 2011. I felt a kingship with O’Brien from my professor’s description of the man who otherwise went by his Irish name Brian Ó Nualláin or Myles na Gopaleen (depending on what he was writing) who was a committed alcoholic and satirist of the funniest order.

Flann O Brien’s The Third Policeman

As excited I was to get started, I only managed to make my way through the first fifty pages wherein a sentient soul appears, insane policemen obsess over bicycles, a man is murdered, his murderer dedicates his life to the study of a fictitious philosopher named de Selby, and the Atomic Theory is introduced.[2] This was too much for me to consider and O’ Brien’s frequent use of footnotes baffled me. I was familiar with the post-modern technique, but its intent was lost on me during that first reading and I soon abandoned the book in order to read Roddy Doyle’s The Barrytown Trilogy.[3]
It took two more years and moving to the Pacific Northwest for me to give it a go again. Even then, it took me two months after reading the first 140 pages to finish off the last sixty, which I did while stalking around my office with Badbadnotgood playing the background. Now on the other side of it, I’m not sure how much I enjoyed the book. I liked O’ Brien’s disregard for novel structure and once I read the afterword, which described it instead as an anatomy[4] I felt love blossoming in me for O’Brien.

See, towards the end of the book I felt a theory forming about why he integrates this absurd fictional philosopher’s theories and his critics’ theories on those theories into his narrative. It rarely seemed to juxtapose with anything in the text individually and towards the end of the anatomy often overrode the main text. However, I began thinking that maybe this was Myles na Gopaleen making an appearance, poking fun at the whole notion of textual analysis of textual analysis of texual analysis. With that in mind, every new footnote became a fantastic joke in and of itself and a dopey smile came over me.

Although written in 1940, The Third Policeman was not released until the year after Ó Nualláin’s death in 1967. It is unfortunate that he did not get to see people try to make heads or tails of the book or analyzing it in the shadows of the academy. He would have most likely had a good laugh about it over a pint or ten.

Read this book if you’d like to see a now clichéd plot twist was done in an era when it was original, want to know what I’m referencing when I asks ‘Is it about a bicycle?’ or like carrying around the same bloody book for months at a time.


Come back next Monday where I give my impression on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Fun stuff!


[1] Something I again encountered when reading Grant Morrison’s Supergods wherein I felt occasionally mind-melded with his maniacal comic book genius and envied his drug-induced encounter with angelic alien beings.

[2] And not in that order although de Selby probably would consider the progression of events to be a consequence of purple particles residing in space-time.

[3] An excellent book now previewing as a musical in the UK!

[4] Defined by Northrop Frye in “The Four Forms of Prose Fiction” as a text which presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern.


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