Flann O’Brien, chuckling

Deep Reading, Deep Reading for Writers

One of my favorite bits in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is when the nameless first-person narrator enters the house of the old man he and his companion have murdered. His aim is to finally fetch the old man’s money-box, which was the original reason for the crime. It is in this part that something very important happens to the narrator. Once you know what it is, you have to admire the brazen artfulness in which the author makes his poor, doomed narrator experience it all. People have heard him chuckle in his grave anytime anyone reads the book, I think.

I’m going to give you just one example: There’s a detail that I can’t believe I’ve missed at least three times. When I finally became aware of it, it was only after I knew what I was looking for and where. It’s one of many hints that suggest the narrator himself may not fully realize what is happening to him, even though he tells the story in his own words:

It’s one of the many details in this chapter that tell you another story beyond the surface, and that I think most readers don’t take seriously on a first reading. And I don’t think you have to, actually. The Third Policeman should be read twice, full stop. I do wonder sometimes if anyone ever figured out what happens here without reading the book at least twice or getting a little help from Wikipedia or the like. (If you did figure it all out on your first reading, please write to us, providing evidence.)

It doesn’t really matter, I guess. Even without this narrative layer, The Third Policeman is as trippy a book as you could wish for, both very silly and very unsettling. So each his or her own trip. I personally know people who read the book twice and who didn’t remember this passage at all.

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