Book for January 2016
is a comedic and absurd novel. In the opening sentence we learn that the narrator has murdered old man Mathers by means of a jaw-crunching blow with a spade. As with other postmodern mysteries, the reader who hopes to "solve" the crime before the police identify the culprit is disappointed on page one. The author just lays out the specifics of the crime and assigns guilt right there.
But in the course of the novel every one of the key elements like the nature of the crime, the name of the victim, the consequences, the motive is subject to reconsideration and revision. Early on in the novel the dead-and-buried murder victim comes back to life, is dead again a few chapters later and makes another resurrection towards the end of the book. The first rise-from-the-grave moment sets off a series of surrealities: a machine that makes, out of nothing, a solid block of gold, a cigarette that never gets used up, an army of one-legged men, who tie themselves together in pairs to give themselves extra mobility in fighting, an elevator that goes up to eternity, bicycles that are half-people and people who are half-bicycle etc.
Juxtaposed against this, the author inserts a scholarly subplot dealing with a long deceased thinker named de Selby, much of which transpires in lengthy footnotes. The unnamed narrator hopes to write a definitive "De Selby Index" and seizes any pretext to ramble about this great philosopher. But here again, what seems realistic collapses: De Selby, it turns out, believed in the most unreasonable things — that night is caused not by the turning or the earth but by an accumulation of “black air”, that people can look at their past selves through two properly placed mirrors and a telescope, that one can travel to another city without leaving the room and so on.
Deep into the story the reader must ask himself if he is being told a series of tall tales, a compendium of impossibilities and extravagant theories. But the author eventually forces a new interpretation of the narrative: as the inexplicable hell that is human experience, as a reality that humans absurdly try to grasp using intellectual devices such as science, philosophy or storytelling.
The book was originally written in 1939-40 and remained unpublished for 27 years. At one point O'Nolan claimed to have lost the manuscript that was rejected by his publisher as too fantastic. The novel was finally published a year after the author’s death.