This was written in 1940 by Irish writer Flann O’Brien, but was not published until after he died in 1967. It is what I would call absurdist speculative fiction. Speculative fiction is a broad category of narrative fiction that includes elements, settings and characters created out of imagination and speculation rather than based on reality and everyday life. It encompasses the genres of science fiction, fantasy, science fantasy, horror, alternative history, and magic realism. And of course, there is “suppositional fiction”, which is sometimes used as a sub-category designating fiction in which characters and stories are constrained by an internally consistent world, but not necessarily one defined by any particular genre.
So, yeah, it could be anything. Publishers need a genre into which they can slot the book so they can market it. Bookshops need a genre so they can shelve the thing. But so much wonderful fiction doesn’t really fit neatly into one category or another, but bleeds all over the place, leaving us Gentle Readers scratching our heads after reading some of this stuff and muttering, “What the flapjacks WAS that thing?”
This story is set in rural Ireland in I suppose what was current time at the date of the writing. A young man is orphaned while attending boarding school. Somehow, he loses a leg, and is fitted with a wooden prothesis, none of which has anything to do with the story, but is just part of his description. A caretaker is on the property which consists of a farm and a tavern. When the young man graduates, he comes home to find the farm in deplorable condition, and the tavern not making any money. He demands redress from the lazy and obviously thieving caretaker, but the man gives many excuses for why the place is in the state it is in, and promises to set it all to rights in a few months. Months turn into more months, and the caretaker tells the young man that what is needed is an infusion of money. But where to get it?
The caretaker, Divney, muses on the fact that a miserly old man lives alone just down the road, and is reported to have a great deal of money hidden in his house. So Divney and the young man, whose name we never learn, plan to ambush him at night, and then go to the house to steal the money. This they do, with Divney whacking the old man comatose, and our protagonist giving him the final blow with a shovel. They then bury the body.
When they go to the house to search for the money, Divney tells the kid he will wait outside while the kid does the search. While bending over a floorboard, the kid suffers a severe blow. When he regains consciousness, he sees a figure sitting in a chair in the dark house. EEEK. It is the old man they had killed. WTF?
They have a conversation, the kid tells Joe Mathers, the dead guy, he is looking for the box of money. Joe suggests they go to the local police for assistance, and off they go.
On their way, they meet a character who directs them to the police barracks.
As I came round the bend of the road an extraordinary spectacle was presented to me. About a hundred yards away on the left-hand side was a house which astonished me. It looked as it if were painted like an advertisement on a board on the roadside and indeed very poorly painted. It looked completely false and unconvincing. It did not seem to have any depth of breadth and looked as if it would not deceive a child. …. my gaze faltered about the thing uncomprehendlingly as if at least one of the customary dimensions was missing.
As the strange object began to acquire more dimensionality, Joe (who could not be seen by anyone) and our boy entered, to be greeted by a large policeman.
He had white enameled teeth which came, I had no doubt, from Manchester, two rows of them arranged in the interior of his mouth and when he smiled it was a fine sight to see, like Delph on a neat country dresser.
The policeman asks if they have come about a bicycle, and from here on, any semblance to normality ceases, although our boy constantly tries to adjust his thinking.
There is a great concern about bicycles, one policeman has made a series of nesting boxes, which become infinitely small, and cannot be seen with the naked eye. One policeman claims that when one rides a bicycle for many years, the person becomes one with the bicycle, and the bicycle becomes part human. You can tell a human who has become his bicycle by the way he stands propped against a wall on one elbow, and if not propped up, falls down.
Each day the police go to a secret place hidden deep in the earth to regulate the machinery which has to do with omnium, the fundamental energy of the universe. This vast place exists where time stands still, or almost so.
Somehow our boy is accused of a crime and is sentenced to hang. He manages to escape, goes to his home to find his old caretaker, Divney, now, 16 years later, married with children. Divney can see the narrator, although the others cannot, and he has a heart attack from the shock. He shouts that our boy was supposed to be dead, for the black box was not filled with money but a bomb and it exploded when he reached for it. The young man leaves Divney on the floor, apparently dying.
He leaves for the police station and is joined on the road by Divney. The approach to the barracks is in the same words as the first time, the story having circled back on itself. And we now know, if we hadn’t guessed already, that our boy is dead, and that all that has occurred has happened in the afterlife.
A funny look at physics
Everything is composed of small particles of itself and they are flying around in concentric circles and arcs and segments and innumerable other geometrical figures too numerous to mention collectively, never standing still or resting but spinning away and darting hither and thither and back again, all the time on the go. These diminutive gentlemen are called atoms.
Now take a sheep. What is a sheep only millions of little bits of sheepness whirling around and doing intricate convolutions inside the sheep? What else is it but that?
One of the side plots is how our young man wishes to write the definite critique of de Selby, a philosopher with bizarre ideas. The book is written in the first person, so our narrator inserts quotes from de Selby from time to time, and in his musings on the efforts of de Selby to prove one esoteric point or another, even gives us footnotes that refer to de Selby’s greatest work.
At one point, after escaping from the police barracks, he sees a light on in Mather’s house, crawls through a window and finds himself between the walls, where the third policeman, heretofore never seen, has set up an office in the extremely narrow confines. If you have seen Being John Malkovich, you will have some idea of what this entails.
It is absurdist lit, without I am sure, having that intention. It was written mostly to have a laugh, and it is that, but since it toys with our notions of time, death, souls, the essence of bicycles, matter, and boundaries, it is so much more than just a giggle.