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Jodi Angel, author of You Only Get Letters from Jail and Matthew Spektor, author of Amerian Dream Machine reading at Powell's Books Monday, July 22, 7:00pm
Broadening My Mind
In one of the places where I was broadening my mind I met one night with a bad accident. I broke my left leg (or, if you like, it was broken for me) in six places and when I was well enough again to go my way I had one leg made of wood, the left one.—Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman
So two sentences. But to my mind both are necessary for each other, intractable as binary stars. Notice the double repetition of the word “one” in the first sentence and the same repetition of the same word in the second, how the “ones” in the first sentence are crunched together in the beginning and then are flung to the outward edges of the second. They orbit each other, all of those ones on the outside and a whole lot of tragedy in between. Notice the mirror-like quality of the middle of the passage, how the first sentence ends with an independent clause (“I met with a bad accident”) and how the second sentence begins with one (“I broke my left leg”). Notice how the sentences break with the leg. There’s a subtle symmetry at work here, a symmetry that spirals out from the core of these sentences but that also draws both of them in.
But let’s stop geeking out about numbers and symmetries and begin celebrating the most wonderful and obvious thing about both of these sentences: so much happens! The narrator, nineteen-years-old, out broadening his mind after the death of his parents and his subsequent many-yeared stint in boarding school, where he steals a volume by the philosopher de Selby (who believes, among other things, that the world is sausage-shaped and that night is caused by the steady accretion of black air), takes to the road, and is befallen by tragedy. He breaks his leg! And not just breaks! His leg is broken! In six places! It’s replaced by a wooden one! A wooden leg! And all of this happens, at least in my Dalkey edition of the novel (not counting the introduction), by page three.
My favorite stories are the ones where stuff happens. The stories hustle. I’m seduced and entertained and never bored. You might think that this makes me a pretty cheap date, artistically-speaking, though I’d argue that the swift and meaningful accretion of events in stories is a lot harder than it looks. What makes O’Brien’s sentences truly great for me, however, is the way that they draw attention to and call into question the power of their own rhetoric. “I broke my left leg,” says the narrator, “(or, if you like, it was broken for me).” This part of the sentence stands out to me precisely because it’s not swift. Right there in the middle of all the action it’s a moment of cognitive dissonance and supreme inaction—a question posed about agency vs. victimhood—a well-placed knot.
One way to see all of this is by thinking about everything that O’Brien has chosen to leave out of these sentences. Where did the narrator break his leg? Who broke it? Why? What about the amputation? How long did the narrator convalesce? Where? All of these are logically valid questions, though they’re rendered seemingly unnecessary because of the carefully chosen sequence of events: “In one of the places where I was broadening my mind, I met one night with a bad accident.” Everything that follows happens swiftly and with an air of inevitability (a perfect Freitag’s triangle, really, of conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution) that entertains and engenders a certain type of complacence. Readers who doubt what they’ve read begin asking questions about motives, verisimilitude, and logic. Readers who believe ask only what happens next. You can’t always turn readers into believers by being speedy, though I do think a certain kind of swiftness can help jumpstart this effect.
Effect is the key word here. O’Brien’s deft narrative choices have shifted the focus of our attention from cause to effect, which is the native ecosystem of story. When we deal in effects, the realm of narrative possibilities is broadened. What can happen spreads out before us like some view from an alien vista. From here, in The Third Policeman (SPOILER ALERT)*, the narrative landscape moves into the even-more-bizarre. The narrator goes on to perform dastardly deeds and bears witness to fantastic and unthinkable acts. He murders somebody for money. He himself is then murdered. The rest of the novel takes place in some kind of bicycle-enthusiast’s hell where he’s sentenced to another death and is saved (kind of) by an army of one-legged men. “Hell,” says Charles Baxter, “is story-friendly.” “Hell,” says Flann O’Brien, “goes round and round.”
* But not really. The murder is revealed in the first sentence of the book, a sentence so good that it deserves its own “Art of the Sentence”: “Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.”