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A.L. Kennedy's Top Ten List
1. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville (1857). Truth, trust, and hope serve as plot and protagonist in this often comic, philosophical novel that anticipated postmodernism by a century. As the good ship Fidèle heads down the Mississippi, a long string of passengers —some modeled on Emerson, Thoreau, and Captain Ahab himself —encounter a shape-shifting confidence man who tells them exactly what they want to hear in order to get what he wants, in a work that raised doubt to an art form.
2. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). This novel might easily have become a victim of its own surpassing fame, which has removed all suspense from its central riddle: What is the relationship between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Yet as our narrator plumbs Dr. Jekyll’s descent into drug-addled, alter-ego madness, we are riveted by Stevenson’s portrait of the good and evil that lurks in one man’s heart. “This, too, was myself,” Jekyll says of Hyde. Somehow we suspect it’s us, too.
3. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (1967). (See below).
4. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961). The Miss Brodie in question is a wildly popular teacher in a 1930s Edinburgh middle school. She cultivates a group of chosen girls —the “crème de la crème,” as she calls them —and in return they must give her their absolute loyalty. Massive privileges accrue to the Brodie set, but Spark is most interested in what the girls sacrifice to be included among the elite in this tense yet charming novel.
5. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759–67). Sterne promises the “life and opinions” of his protagonist. Yet halfway through the fourth volume of nine, we are still in the first day of the hero’s life thanks to marvelous digressions and what the narrator calls “unforeseen stoppages”—detailing the quirky habits of his eccentric family members and their friends. This broken narrative is unified by Sterne’s comic touch, which shimmers in this thoroughly entertaining novel that harks back to Don Quixote and foreshadows Ulysses.
6. Lanark: A Life in Four Books by Alasdair Gray (1981). In the maverick Scottish author’s testy allegory, four (eccentrically illustrated) “books,” which are presented nonsequentially, trace the lives of two protagonists who are a single frustrated artist. Grim naturalism depicts Glaswegian painter Duncan Thaw’s losing battles with public indifference and chronic illness. Blakean fantasy traces the parallel sufferings of Thaw’s eponymous alter ego, whose misadventures in the dystopian city of Unthank represent Thaw’s continuing miseries in the hereafter he inhabits following his suicide. Accusatory, opaque, redundant —the novel is also, oddly enough, compulsively readable and perversely memorable.
7. The Book of Evidence by John Banville (1989). Frederick Charles St. John Venderveld Montgomery is an Irishman who has traveled the world. Back in his dull hometown, he becomes obsessed with a three hundred-year-old painting. He murders an old woman to secure it. Upon his capture for that crime, he offers a confession that reveals his savage heart and soulless existence.
8. The Lost Father by Mona Simpson (1992). Featuring the heroine from Anywhere but Here, the novel tracks Mayan Atassi’s search across two continents and to the point of madness for the man who has become her God —the father who abandoned her.
9. Sergeant Getulio by João Ubaldo Ribeiro (1971). This deeply unsettling novel features one of literature’s most loathsome creations —a Brazilian policeman adept at torture, maiming, and beheadings. Yet, as he transports a political prisoner across remote and dangerous terrain, we see a man both resourceful and persistent. As he explains himself, we see a man driven by honor, loyalty, and morality. In the process this appalling figure seems almost appealing.
10. Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal (1965). As if he doesn’t have enough trouble living in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II, Milos Hrma learns he is impotent during his first sexual encounter. After trying to commit suicide, he returns to his job tending German trains while imagining ways to reassert his manhood. In an alternately funny and sad, lusty and bleak novel, politics and sex merge in a tragic climax that suggests the heroism of the common man.
Appreciation of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman by A. L. Kennedy
The Third Policeman is that rare and lovely thing —a truly hallucinatory novel, shot through with fierce logic and intellectual rigor. It is a lyrical, amoral, funny nightmare: the most disciplined and disturbing product of an always interesting writer. Our protagonist is “the poor misfortunate bastard”—a drinker, philosopher, and obsessive bibliophile. His sins grow with him, making a logical progression from book theft to burglary and murder —all this against a heightened version of poor, rural Ireland: a setting layered with absurd but weirdly recognizable detail. He then stumbles into a potentially fatal alternative reality: a haunting, teasing Irish countryside of parlors and winding roads from which it seems impossible to return.
Beneath the music of O’Brien’s prose there is always a savage understanding of our failings, the pressures of poverty, greed, and fear. And there is always the dark humor that both excuses and condemns us. Our hero (who develops an entirely separate soul, called Joe) drifts into a weird landscape of jovially menacing policemen (who may or not may not be bicycles) and of inexplicable objects and mechanisms that operate beneath nature’s skin. His imprisonment and threatened execution seem even more troubling because they are nonsensical, perhaps even kind. Slowly it becomes clear that, among other things, this novel is about hell —a much-deserved, amusing, irrational, and entirely inescapable hell. Because, for O’Brien, hell is not only other people —it is ourselves.
Beyond this, The Third Policeman is genuinely indescribable: a book that holds you like a lovely and accusing dream. Read it and you’ll never forget it. Meet anyone else who has read it and you’ll find yourselves repeating sections of its melodious insanity within moments. Meet anyone who hasn’t read it and you’ll tell them they must. Which will be the truth.