The Funniest, and Scariest, Book Ever Written Writer Charles Baxter offers praise for Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, which can be confusing, comical and harrowing. "Novels like The Third Policeman can sometimes throw readers into a panic," Baxter says. "They ask, 'What on earth is this?"


The Funniest, and Scariest, Book Ever Written

Scroll down to read an excerpt of The Third Policeman. hide caption

toggle caption

Charles Baxter is the author of Saul and Patsy, published in September 2003. His previous novel, The Feast of Love, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2000 and is being made into a film starring Morgan Freeman. He has published two other novels, four books of stories, essays and poetry. He now lives in Minneapolis and is currently the Edelstein-Keller Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota.

Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them -- and so do writers. This summer, talks with authors about their favorite buttonhole books in the weekly series "You Must Read This."

The Third Policeman, originally published in 1944, is the singularly strange crowning work in the fiction of the great Irish humorist Flann O'Brien. It opens with a tale of robbery and murder committed by its nameless narrator, who intends to use the proceeds of the crime to publish his commentaries on the writings of a plainly cracked philosopher named de Selby -- who theorizes that the earth is actually shaped like a sausage and that the phenomenon of night is a form of industrial pollution.

From there on, the book only gets stranger. The narrator finds himself in an alternate dimension not unlike the area surrounding his rural Irish home, but running on an entirely different set of metaphysical laws. The area policemen closely monitor the movements of local citizens, convinced that they are gradually being turned into bicycles. Violent one-legged men roam the countryside. And eternity is an elevator ride away, just to the left of the local river. Yet the real astonishment is reserved for the conclusion, where the narrator discovers some discomfiting truths about his own metaphysical situation. NPR discussed O'Brien's antic, witty book with Charles Baxter, author of the novel Saul and Patsy.

Q. So in the introduction to my reprint edition, Denis Donoghue argues that The Third Policeman isn't a novel at all, but something he calls (after the critic Northrop Frye) a "Menippean satire," mainly concerned with lampooning broad character types like the mad philosopher de Selby.

It's true that The Third Policeman isn't long on conventional plotting. But doesn't it have as every bit the claim to the novel pedigree -- and indeed, to classic stature as a comic novel -- that we'd accord to any number of similarly convention-bending works, e.g., Don Quixote or Tristam Shandy, or the work of Joyce and Beckett?

Novels like The Third Policeman can sometimes throw readers into a panic. They ask, "What on earth (or elsewhere) is this? Where am I? How do we classify this book?" I'm no great fan of Northrop Frye's criticism, and I don't care all that much whether O'Brien's book is a Menippean satire or a literary bicycle pump. What good are these critical categories when we're reading, except to put our readerly experiences into a labeled box?

Certainly if we try, we can find many other novels like The Third Policeman, such as the ones you mentioned, or, more recently, Nabokov's Pale Fire, and virtually all the novels of the wonderful Charles Portis, or the footnote-sprouting fiction of David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers and much other contemporary writing.

Of course, this book is a novel, and as the discourse of our world gets stranger and seemingly more private, the book's content seems more true to life. I'm more interested in the experience of reading a novel like The Third Policeman than in classifying it. Its slightly demented narrative spirals out into wild comedy and the hilarity of terror -- that's what is interesting.

I don't know what world Donoghue lives in, but the characters in The Third Policeman can be met up with any day. They're the people who talk your head off in committee rooms hour after hour, who grab your lapels at the office and spew out their "theories" -- also, not incidentally, the Internet is filled with the crazy contributions of people who are like the characters in this book, the subtly mad who thrive on their obsessive insights and secret knowledge. They're everywhere.

Q. Donoghue also makes the case that O'Brien is a "nihilist" writer, another claim that strikes me as overblown. Isn't the narrator actually being punished -- albeit in hilariously roundabout fashion -- for his misdeeds?

No, it's not nihilism. What confuses some readers is that the tone of this novel is not moralistic, or earnest, but slippery and weirdly offhanded. In it, language is like a fish you've caught that has slipped out of your hands and is flopping around in the boat. We're plunged into a comic nightmare, where language, like that fish I mentioned, keeps going out of control or manages to flop out of the boat back into its native element. (English was the second language that O'Brien acquired, and it must have felt slightly alien to him, as it did to many Irish writers, because he loves to mock its technical vocabulary and its rumbling blowhard sentences.)

The narrator -- who is a murderer -- ends up confronting his victim in the afterlife in a funny but also terrifying scene, and he watches as, slowly but surely, a scaffold is built for his own hanging -- or his "stretching," as the policemen call it. The narrator meets his soul, and as the novel advances, he feels a growing sense of disorientation and "brain-shrinking" fright. He learns that in the world of eternity, you can see treasures but can't enrich yourself with them. This is nihilism? It's the opposite -- a world supersaturated with meanings and consequences.

Q. Right -- and isn't there at least some significance in O'Brien making such sport of the hilariously mechanistic philosophy of de Selby? It does, after all, furnish the narrator's motive for the murder.

I think the narrator is in love with the wisdom of de Selby the way the man on the American street might love the wisdom of, oh, say, L. Ron Hubbard. The narrator's obsession with de Selby's "writings" starts to seem almost sensible after a while. De Selby believes, for instance, that the darkness of "night" is created by an accumulation of soot produced by industrial effluvia, and that "sleep" is actually a form of hysterical fainting required by the body because of the lack of oxygen caused by all this soot. This explanation sounds relatively sensible to me, particularly in cities like Cleveland.

And why isn't it true, as the novel claims, that, when you hit a piece of steel with a hammer, some of the atoms of the hammer go into the piece of steel? Why shouldn't people turn into the bicycles they ride? Anyway, no institutionalized form of wisdom or knowledge is left unscathed by this book. I don't think the mechanism of the cracked world view helps to cause the murder; it's not the world view, I mean: it's the obsession. Show me an obsessive, and I'll show you a potential criminal -- or so says this novel.

Q. Any idea of what role Fox, the actual third policeman, is doing in the book named for him? Is he some sort of gatekeeper for O'Brien's cracked moral cosmos? Or is he yet another wrong variation on the book's seemingly endless collection of wrong themes?

I feel as if I have a very loose grip on who this Fox is, a very loose grip indeed. He is apparently a gatekeeper of some kind, or perhaps yet another one of the semi-human objects that the narrator must get around, or over, in his post-mortal confrontation with himself.

If I possessed a symbolizing mentality, which (the gods be praised) I do not, I would notice that there are three policemen in the story, figures of omnivorous authority available here and there to the narrator in the afterlife in which he finds himself. In the Catholicism in which the author, Flann O'Brien, grew up, there is the doctrinal mystery of the Trinity -- but fortunately I am not a symbol-making fellow, just a plain reader, so there is no possible way that Fox could be a symbol for really much of anything, least of all any entity human or divine that I can think of right now. Of the making of symbols there is no end. Perhaps, after all, the process of symbol-making is like the creation of smaller and smaller chests, treasure chests that are filled, unfortunately, with nothing but smaller treasure chests, which themselves are filled with other chests -- did I mention that one of the policemen is making such chests, the smallest one so small that it cannot, apparently, be seen? I didn't? Good. Such is the logic of this book.

Q. You've probably heard that the book made a cameo appearance on the ABC castaway melodrama Lost. Any theories about the supersaturated meaning of that?

I myself have never seen Lost. However, when Tony Soprano had his near-death experience and, on the other side, found himself in a sort of afterlife standing outside a large multi-roomed house wherein his murder victims lived (with a lighthouse in the distance), I fully expected him to find, somewhere on the doorstep, a copy of The Third Policeman. I can't imagine why David Chase didn't think of it. If he didn't, he should have. That scene felt like something out of O'Brien's novel. As did that old Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner, which has probably been ripped off for Lost.

Q. Has The Third Policeman influenced your own work in any way you've noticed? How did you first come across it?

I first discovered The Third Policeman when someone -- I don't remember who -- recommended it to me, claiming it was the funniest book ever written, bar none. I would agree, if to the adjective "funniest" was added the conjunction and adjective "and scariest."

I had never read anything quite like it, and now, although I have read books like it, I have never read anything of its kind (which is what? a Menippean satire?) to surpass it. It inspired me in several stories to imaginative courage, such as I possess.

Most recently (upon rereading it), I have committed a new story, an homage to it, called "The Untranslated," about the afterlife, which turns out to be a rather large hotel with infinitely receding hallways, and keys hanging out of all the locks. In each room, some part of your life is being reenacted, for a paying audience.

Excerpt: 'The Third Policeman'

NOT EVERYBODY knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar. Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded. He was personally responsible for the whole idea in the first place. It was he who told me to bring my spade. He was the one who gave the orders on the occasion and also the ex¬planations when they were called for.

I was born a long time ago. My father was a strong farmer and my mother owned a public house. We all lived in the public house but it was not a strong house at all and was closed most of the day because my father was out at work on the farm and my mother was always in the kitchen and for some reason the customers never came until it was nearly bed-time; and well after it at Christmas-time and on other unusual days like that. I never saw my mother outside the kitchen in my life and never saw a customer during the day and even at night I never saw more than two or three to¬gether. But then I was in bed part of the time and it is possible that things happened differently with my mother and with the customers late at night. My father I do not remember well but he was a strong man and did not talk much except on Saturdays when he would mention Parnell with the customers and say that Ireland was a queer country. My mother I can recall perfectly. Her face was always red and sore-looking from bending at the fire, she spent her life making tea to pass the time and singing snatches of old songs to pass the meantime. I knew her well but my father and I were strangers and did not converse much; often indeed when I would be studying in the kitchen at night I could hear him through the thin door to the shop talking there from his seat under the oil-lamp for hours on end to Mick the sheepdog. Always it was only the drone of his voice I heard, never the separate bits of words. He was a man who understood all dogs thoroughly and treated them like human beings. My mother owned a cat but it was a foreign out¬door animal and was rarely seen and my mother never took any notice of it. We were all happy enough in a queer separ¬ate way.

Then a certain year came about the Christmas-time and when the year was gone my father and mother were gone also. Mick the sheepdog was very tired and sad after my father went and would not do his work with the sheep at all; he too went the next year. I was young and foolish at the time and did not know properly why these people had all left me, where they had gone and why they did not give explana¬tions beforehand. My mother was the first to go and I can remember a fat man with a red face and a black suit telling my father that there was no doubt where she was, that he could be as sure of that as he could of anything else in this vale of tears. But he did not mention where and as I thought the whole thing was very private and that she might be back on Wednesday, I did not ask him where. Later, when my father went, I thought he had gone to fetch her with an out¬side car but when neither of them came back on the next Wednesday, I felt sorry and disappointed. The man in the black suit was back again. He stayed in the house for two nights and was continually washing his hands in the bed¬room and reading books. There were two other men, one a small pale man and one a tall black man in leggings. They had pockets full of pennies and they gave me one every time I asked them questions. I can remember the tall man in the leggings saying to the other man:

'The poor misfortunate little bastard.'

I did not understand this at the time and thought that they were talking about the other man in the black clothes who was always working at the wash-stand in the bedroom. But I understood it all clearly afterwards.

After a few days I was brought away myself on an outside car and sent to a strange school. It was a boarding school filled with people I did not know, some young and some older. I soon got to know that it was a good school and a very expensive one but I did not pay over any money to the people who were in charge of it because I had not any. All this and a lot more I understood clearly later.

My life at this school does not matter except for one thing. It was here that I first came to know something of de Selby. One day I picked up idly an old tattered book in the science master's study and put it in my pocket to read in bed the next morning as I had just earned the privilege of lying late. I was about sixteen then and the date was the seventh of March. I still think that day is the most important in my life and can remember it more readily than I do my birthday. The book was a first edition of Golden Hours with the two last pages missing. By the time I was nineteen and had reached the end of my education I knew that the book was valuable and that in keeping it I was stealing it. Never¬theless I packed it in my bag without a qualm and would probably do the same if I had my time again. Perhaps it is important in the story I am going to tell to remember that it was for de Selby I committed my first serious sin. It was for him that I committed my greatest sin.