The Resolution Project Book Nine: At Swim-Two-Birds (1938)

books / the resolution project

The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned.

“The novel, in the hands of an unscrupulous writer, could be despotic. In reply to an inquiry, it was explained that a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity. It was undemocratic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living. This would make for self-respect, contentment and better service.” The nameless protagonist, explaining his novel-in-progress. (p. 21)

At Swim-Two-Birds Cover

At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien

This was kind of an amazing book, like Lev Grossman writes, “[o]ne of the best kept secrets of 20th-century literature.” The plot, which I will attempt to summarize insomuch as it is possible to do so, is as follows. A nameless Irish college student, when he’s not out getting drunk with his quasi-literati friends, is writing a novel about a famous author named Dermot Trellis. In the book, Trellis too writes a novel, conjuring characters into being and then binding them to service by making them stay at his home, the Red Swan hotel. During the odd times when he is awake, they have to perform the roles Trellis has set out for them; when he sleeps, though, due to what I believe is narcolepsy, they go off-message and do whatever they feel like doing. What happens next is when those characters, including among them the legendary Irish hero Finn MacCool, the mad half-bird king Sweeny, a pair of Irish cowboys (large swathes of Dublin have been removed to make room for grazing lands, it’s a long story), and a pooka (a kind of evil devil-fairy) named MacPhellimey along with the Good Fairy who lives in his pocket, are not treated in the civil matter outlined in the above quotation.

This is the sort of book that, if you’re like myself, you’ll have to wrestle with the impulse of continually wanting to quote out great lines to your loved ones and colleagues, because they will simply have no idea what you’re talking about. So much of the fun of this book comes from the different writing styles employed by O’Brien (the pen-name of Brian O’Nolan), which include epic Irish poetry, rough and tumble pulpy Western stories, an almost kids-book style when visiting the Pooka MacPhellimey at home, etc. Some of these sections do drag at first, though, the Sweeny and MacCool poetry sections for sure, but once the walls between the various stories start to break down, it gets a lot more fun. Reading the wikipedia article for the book tells me that many pieces of the book are actually found literature, the Sweeny cycle and a letter received from a bookie about an upcoming horse race.

Something this book has a little bit of that I really like is “fake” art pieces. What I mean by this is that in the world of the novel, there are certain manuscripts and books that have a lot of power, and are alluded to with the same reverence we would give to masterpieces in our world, but with the caveat of not having existed. For some reason I really like lists of books that never existed, or, like in a future book I’m to be reading on the Resolution Project, Infinite Jest, lists of movies made by a fictional directors. I really liked Flicker for this as well, a book about a film studies student unearthing the oeuvre of a director attempting to end the world with secret cinematic techniques. At Swim-Two-Birds gains a lot of mileage from me due to the depth imparted to it by the references to, and outright quotations from, books that exist in the narrator’s and Trellis’ worlds. Maybe it’s just the influence of H.P. Lovecraft on my younger self, or more specifically my enjoyment of seeing how much SAN points you would lose in the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game by coming into contact with powerful books that made me like these sorts of things. It could also be the splurging on Borges I partook in my second year of University, for that matter, but the fact remains that I loved this book too.

I’d really like to read some more O’Brien, specifically his posthumously-published The Third Policeman, but that’ll have to wait until after my task is completed. For some crazy reason though, Brendan Gleeson (the actor I first recognized for playing “Mad-Eye” Moody from the Harry Potter movies) is apparently attempting to turn At Swim-Two-Birds, this most arcane and literary of books, into a movie, which is just bonkers. I know people who found Inception somewhat confusing, so in order to make this book into a film you’d either need to dumb it down substantially or administer obligatory IQ tests before every screening to weed out people who wouldn’t get it. Still, good on him for trying to get this excellent book back out into the public imagination.

“He is a great man that never gets out of bed, he said, He spends the days and nights reading books and occasionally he writes one. He makes his characters live with him in his house. Nobody knows whether they are there at all or whether it is all imagination. A great man.: (p. 97)

The List

Total pages read since January 1st: 2655 pp

Next up on the Resolution Project: Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories (1946)

The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at


  1. I was looking to see if anybody had written about the Great Gatsby game because I’d just written my own post, and I was interested to find you were reading the Time 100. I’ve been working through this list as well, but I gave myself 5 years (these aren’t the only books I’m reading) and am at 46 out of 100. My heartiest pip-pip if you can read them all in a year!

    • I’m only reading the ones I haven’t read before, so it’s more like 86 books or so, but yeah, definitely a tough challenge. I would be ever so happy to receive a pip-pip. Thanks for stopping by!

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