This is about a bicycle. At the beginning of 2020, I was reading at a pretty okay clip (for me). New releases—The Cactus League by Emily Nemens, Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey. Re-reads—Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, I Have No Mouth and I must Scream by Harlan Ellison. Unpublished novels and collections—works-in-progress every week for my writers’ group. So, when the pandemic shoved us all into our homes, I figured my book intake would double. More time, without the commute. Less to do, with nothing open and each friend a disease vector. Naturally, I picked up a book, got on the couch, and thought I’d ride out the plague on a raft of words.
But my mind drifted from the first book—it might have been Whiteout Conditions by Tariq Shah—and this was my fault, not the book’s. I thought, OK, I’ll switch to short stories—an Alice Munro collection, because I’ve actually never read her and was finally sick of having to say so—but my brain wouldn’t cooperate long enough even for short things.
I picked up book after book (mostly from the Libby app, which is useful for anyone with a library card), but I returned them all after only a day or two, unable to sever my concentration from my own thoughts and escape fully into reading. In my desperation to complete a work and break the spell, I even tried poetry. I switched to audiobooks (you can get those through Libby, as well (this is now an ad for Libby)). That helped a little. I listened on runs, on drives, while staring out the window. I got through some books that way, but I didn’t fully vanish into them. It was frustrating, and at the worst time.
My formulation for my literapathy is that the world had so quickly become so strange—so unimaginably weird and bad and not at all realistic to me—that literature had been rendered temporarily irrelevant. I read in order to light up parts of my brain that enjoy constructing worlds and that gain from experiencing things that are novel.
Typically, reading is the best thing for activating these brain parts. But the real world was overloading them. I was constantly—exhaustingly—puzzling out what was happening to the world, on the empty streets of my town, in the newspapers, to the lives of my friends and family and coworkers and everyone else. No book could compete with this need for weird thinking that the world was now cruelly requiring. But one book finally did smash this psychic barrier.
I had attempted to read The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien maybe ten years before the pandemic, but I had put it down because its brand of odd was too screwy for me at the time. I love weird fiction. Experimental stuff. The avant-garde. When someone says that some book is too bizarre, I check it out immediately. But back around 2010ish, I wasn’t yet equal to the seminal lunacy of O’Brien’s posthumous classic. A time would come, I predicted. And that time was pandemic, year one.
Heralded as one of the strangest works of all time, The Third Policeman is part metafiction, part surrealism, part absurdism, and part… speculative spiritualism? There are footnotes in it. There are impossible morphs in setting and tone. There are logic puzzles within labyrinths. There are questions raised and never answered. There are jokes throughout that seem almost to place reader at butt. It is constructed in a never-ending loop. But I found it righteous, clear, and absorbing. It made perfect sense during the weirdest year on record.
I went through it three times. Twice in print, once in audio. It was a comfort and a joy to be in its unique dimension. The vibe of the novel starts out jaunty. The lift to the prose announces that maybe none of this should be taken too seriously. The events in the first part are fairly normal—the narrator inherits a pub that his friend helps operate. There are funny bits, but it’s mostly quirky realism. The events turn dark when they kill and bury a man for his cashbox.
Nothing that follows this cold-blooded murder examines the darkness of humanity or the interiority of the characters that you might find in, say—(yawn)—realism. It becomes a kind of situational comedy at that point, wherein the narrator never leaves his friend’s side, even sleeping with him, because he suspects that his friend is planning to abscond with the cash that should rightfully be shared. When the friend takes the narrator to the hiding spot of the cashbox, and the narrator opens it, the entire world of the story rotates on a cosmic axle. We are thrust into a new and unknowable setting with heroically vexing circumstances.
From that point on, The Third Policeman drew me in and vanquished the real world and its pandemic. The story made the strangeness of 2020 utterly tame. There are so many dizzyingly inventive scenarios, interactions, and outright thought-experiments that the narrator encounters, that the book, then, requires your every neuron’s full attention to adequately construct what you are experiencing. But then you get it.
There is a crucial distinction between The Third Policeman and other “difficult” or experimental works. This novel is always clear. The writing is plain. There is no confusion, only intense mystery and delightful absurdity. Nothing is vague. The only reason to reread a sentence is to marvel at it, or because you feel that what you’ve just read couldn’t possibly be what you’ve just read! But you’ve always read it correctly; It’s just that odd. This is not an experiment with language. There’s almost no subtlety to the writing. It’s all right there on the surface, everything you need. But the scenes necessitate real work to break through our brain-mechanism, which usually refuses to create such images, to actually create these places, characters, and situations. It seems impossible, at first, seems like it requires so much sustained effort, until, all of a sudden, you can’t remember what it was like to not be in this world, or not know how to ride a bicycle.
Mark Polanzak is the author of a collection of stories, called The OK End of Funny Town, and a hybrid work, called POP! He co-edits draft: the journal of process and teaches at the Berklee College of Music. Mark lives in Salem, Massachusetts.
The Third Policeman
"The literary equivalent of a Tesla invention" - Bookslut
Winner of the BOA Short Fiction Prize
One of BuzzFeed's Fifteen Small Press Books To Kick Off the 2020 Reading Season
"Wondrous yet familiar, The OK End of Funny Town excavates the layers between our collective obsession with passing fads and our secret yearning for lasting connection."
"Part memoir, part fiction, and part essayistic speculation, POP! brilliantly redefines what a 'personal' narrative can be."
Brian's Surrealistic Playlist
The Third Policeman ::: Stephen Rea
I Can’t Read ::: David Bowie
Words ::: The Bee Gees
Bicycle ::: Mark Olson & Gary Louris
Broken Bicycles ::: Tom Waits
The Irish Ballad ::: Tom Lehrer
A Bicycle Built For Two ::: John Fahey