Published in 1939, Flann O’ Brien’s At Swim Two Birds is regarded as the high point of his literary achievement. It is a novel of satire and pastiche, which uses narrative embeddings to depict a multi levelled story based in a postmodern Dublin. The unnamed narrator, a student attending University College Dublin, acknowledges “the importance of being at all times occupied with literary activities of a spare time or recreative character” (O’ Brien: 32). There is a definite tension between formal conservatism and experimentation evident throughout the novel. The use of metalepsis was at the time extremely daring and experimental, even though the structure of a frame narrative is one that forms part of the literary tradition. There is also the political element of the novel to be analysed. Although most obviously a postmodern (experimental) novel, there is also a strong postcolonial element which reveals a more traditional and conservative influence. (3) It can also be argued that O Brien’s novel was a reaction against the literary Ireland of the 1930’s, where the modernism of Joyce and Beckett was ubiquitous and had itself become the established, and by extension conservative, style of its time. (4)Finally, the issue of Irish culture and nationalism is one which is addressed in the novel, and O’ Brien’s rejection of a romanticised Ireland while still being influenced by old Irish texts also illustrate the tension between the old and the new.
Embedded narratives are part of the literary tradition, and have appeared in many different periods and genres. Some of the better known examples include The Canterbury Tales, The Man Who Would be King and Arabian Nights. Traditionally the inclusion of an embedded narrative was done in such a way that the ‘realness’ of the story was not compromised, for example through the discovery of a diary or manuscript. Frame narratives were still used in the modernist and postmodernist periods, but the previously solid narrative framework, which contained the story within the story, became more indistinct, and boundaries became more blurred. In the case of At Swim Two Birds the boundaries separating the various frames, and the whole narrative text and the real world are extremely vaporous. The form of the novel allows the text to discuss it’s own existence. O Brien uses the three levels within the text to reflect on the validity of the structure of the novel itself, thereby using an old, conservative literary construct to perform a postmodern task. Aldous Huxley, in Point Counter Point, writes:
Put a novelist into a novel. He justifies aesthetic generalisations. He also justifies experiments. Specimens of his work may illustrate other possible or impossible ways of telling a story. And if you have him telling parts of the same story as you are, you can make a variation on the theme. But why draw the line at one novelist inside your novel? Why not a second inside his? And a third inside the novel of the second?