Aint that like a nice guy – 12 impressions from Flann O’Brien’s Dalkey Archive


[CN: male privilege, nice guy misogyny, male entitlement, patriarchal discourse, spoilers to Vertigo]

1. This novel was something like an anti-Ulysses. Whoa, an Irish avant garde text that’s approachable and short? In Ulysses a single day in Edwardian Dublin is fictionalized in what is seen as a totalizing representation, capturing everything, even the nonsense, and enveloping the grandiose and epic through the banalities of Mr. Bloom’s ordinary and unassuming life. The Dalkey Archive centers on a seaside Dublin suburb that seems so old-fashioned it’s like WWII never happened, and we follow one man who seems to be doing nothing but make one appointment after another in one pub after another (and across several days). But his ultimate goal in these quotidian movements involves saving the wooooooorrrrld!

2. It distinguishes itself from other “comic novels” in that while most comic novels spin humorous extended narratives, Dalkey is more like a looming cloud of sheer hilarity that remains a constant threat to the coherence of the story, the characters, and the reader’s sanity.

3. Flann O’Brien’s writing voice is what an after dinner speaking judge I had once would have described as “laugh-a-minute,” pejoratively.

4. The town of Dalkey is introduced like a travelogue film narrated by the worst presenter ever:

But why this name Vico Road? Is there to be recalled in this magnificence a certain philosopher’s pattern of man’s lot on earth — thesis, antithesis, synthesis, chaos? Hardly. And is this to be compared with the Bay of Naples? That is not to be thought of, for in Naples there must be heat and hardness belaboring desiccated Italians — no soft Irish skies, no little breezes that feel almost coloured.

At a great distance ahead and up, one could see a remote little obelisk surmounting some steps up where one can sit and contemplate all this scene: the sea, the peninsula of Howth across the bay and distantly, to the right, the dim outline of the Wicklow mountains, blue or grey. Was the monument erected to honour the Creator of all this splendour? No. Perhaps in remembrance of a fine Irish person He once made — Johannes Scotus Erigena, perhaps, or possibly Parnell? No indeed: Queen Victoria. (8)

5. The narrator for the most part aligns with the subjectivity of Michael “Mick” Shaughnessy. The novel is very much driven by scene and dialog (some chapters are basically philosophical dialogs) but the “No One narrator” is always present, stressing its distance from the text, its free indirect discourse into Mick’s world. Through this distance the kind of subversive irony Austin refined for English lit, and it threatens the stability of the story world even if it never achieves critical mass.

6. This leads to the most insightful lines given on Mick’s character. They open chapter 6, and on reading them I wanted to identify Mick as a Nice Guy (with capitals). Here Mick contemplates his girlfriend Mary:

Mary was not a simple girl, not an easy subject to write about nor Mick the one to write. He thought women in general were hopeless as a theme for discussion or discourse, and surely for one man the one special — la femme particuliere, if that sharpens the meaning — must look dim, meaningless and empty to others if he should talk genuinely about her or think aloud. The mutual compulsion is a mystery, not just a foible or biogenesis, and this sort of mystery, even if comprehensible to the two concerned, is at least absolutely private.

Willful mystification of women — check.

Mary was no sweetie-pie nor was she pretty but (to Mick’s eyes) she was good-looking and dignified. Brown-eyed, her personality was russet and usually she was quiet and recollected. He was, he thought, very fond of her and did not by any means regard her as merely a member of her sex, or anything so commonplace and trivial. (58)

Isn’t it funny how when Nice Guys front like they prioritize respecting women, we barter this respect on a contempt for femininity. She’s not like those other girls, with their make-up and lip gloss and shoe shopping! Those girls are a monolith, commonplace.

She was a true obsession with him (he suspected) and kept coming into his head on all sorts of irrelevant occasions without, so to speak, knocking.

We pity ourselves that our intrusive thoughts of lust occur without our consent, without knocking. Why must she be so haut? What is this mystery of mutual compulsion, presuming of course that het romance is as natural as magnetism (but how does that work?)

But at this time Mick is certain he will marry Mary, but he has not made these expectations clear.

6′. Although Mary seems like an inscrutable other, objectified by Michael’s Nice Guy desires because of the narrator’s proximity to him, Mary is actually the very first character we see: “Mary was nudging Michael Shaughnessy.” Except she’s not actually there. It’s those intrusive thoughts mentioned above, but the narrator invests the idea of Mary with the agency that Mick is granting it by denying his own self-responsibility.

7. (Not to mention Mary is a competent woman holding a non-trivial job in the fashion industry. Michael is thankful he doesn’t know her income because he is horribly threatened by the idea that it is larger than his miserable pay. But that’s not as threatening as the fact that Mary, like our hero, fancies herself a writer.)

8. Part of the epistemic regime that privileges masculinity in assumptions of knowing is also the assumptions we men make in what we don’t know. Mick reminds me of Scottie in Vertigo, another man so desperate for intimacy with a woman yet is scared to death of his own definition of the female as a mysterious other. Woman for us men folk is an absence, not just of the penis/power/what-have-you but an actual vertiginous void. So we (being men who must spur reflection and take action now dammit now) must pile on the clothes and jewelry and remake Judy Barton into that ideal we thought we fell in love with. The ideal woman is a flattening of a human being into a 2D painting; women as spectacle.

We shape the knowledge and empty space, and our entrenched role as objectifiers leaves us entitled to not only have expectations, but to impose ourselves onto our desired objects and shape them. The Pygmalion narrative pattern is at work here. Scottie dresses up Judy back into Madeline, Mick resolves to “make Mary more of his own quiet kind, and down to earth.”

Okay so Dalkey and Vertigo is a stretch and really don’t have all that much in common. They’re both from the 60s, almost. And Midge, the only character in the film who I’d call a decent human being, is also working in fashion!

9. Assumptions of knowing are everywhere in Dalkey. The novel is a series of encounters with men who exploit science and hold closely guarded secrets of knowledge, the Truth, blah blah. We meet an eccentric scientist who believes our perception of linear time comes from our dependency on Oxygen, and claims to have mastered time travel and uses it to age his whiskey. A police officer who slashes the bicycle tires of his colleague to prevent his transformation into a machine through molecular transference. It reminds me of a soundbyte from Joyce Carol Oates in the introduction to her Lovecraft collection; how the 20th century can be seen as “an age that has ceased to believe collectively in the supernatural while retaining the primitive instinct to do so,” and so we get UFO abduction claims, orbs in photographs, etc.

10. James Joyce makes an appearance! He’s much more mellowed out than his depiction by Richard Ellmann. Of course Flann O’Brien negotiated a difficult relationship with Joyce. It can’t be easy wanting to write experimental fiction under the shadow of the man who wrote Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. This was not even the first time Joyce was fictionalized into O’Brien’s work. Have other writers responded to their respective giants in this manner? Brian O’Nolan wrote in a correspondence:

Ignorant reviewers have messed me up with another man, to my intense embarrassment and disgust, and he will be another character. I mean James Joyce. I’m going to get my own back on that bugger. (I suppose you know that, like Hitler, Joyce isn’t dead at all. He is living in retirement and a sort of disguise at Skerries, a small wateringplace 21 miles N. of Dublin. He has been trying to screw up enough courage to join the Jesuits.)

He sometimes referred to Joyce as “the Fuhrer.”

11. Scientific discourse that is obviously junk is sustained by our penchant for canonization. Mick and his friend collectively witness the mad scientist DeSelby freeze time and conduct a dialog with Saint Augustine and Mick comes away not at all concerned with Augustine’s troubling words but with the fact that it was the Augustine. We are always rationalizing the world into our empirical system, grabbing everything in sight and assimilating it into a growing phallus of institutionalized knowldge, building upwards to find some position of certainty from which Objectivity will flourish and Reality will be graspable like the two-dimensional ideal woman, selfless, acquiescent. Flann O’Brien takes our language of scientific ultra-logic and vomits it back at us. Serial monogamist Nice Guys feel that their (s)expectations are betrayed in every ruined relationship — the real betrayal is our language to our reality.

The novel doesn’t feel like an “archive” of anything, certainly not in the way Ulysses can be seen as an archive of a past cosmopolitan space, captured in masterful encyclopedic composition. Realism, that desire to fix reality into a secure order, is punted out with fiendish glee. Rational explanations are anticipated and never delivered. Our “mysterious compulsion” to capture everything about the physical world and wrap it within our discourse which serves to legitimate male supremacy and male expectations is exposed for all to ridicule. We are left with paranoia. Our language will betray us even as we double down on it in the face of ruptured reality, we who were arrogant enough to think it was under our control.

We who uphold and defend the patriarchal system and the expectations it grants us are not really privileged by it in a sense. We’re just the class the system will grind up last.

12. Somebody wrote an epigraph in my library’s copy:

Let’s raise our glass to Judas
Cheers and Good Health!
The only man so clever
he outwitted God Himself!
— Francis P. Fitzpatrick

Correspondence quoted from Ronald L. Dotterer [pay wall]

My critspeak on Vertigo is mostly informed by Modleski.


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