Speaking of all these nested fictions in Simon Starling’s story and in those films, I’m reading The Third Policeman (Flann O’Brien 1967) at the moment for an experimental fiction reading group that starts next month at Goldsmiths.

In The Third Policeman a man finds himself in a new place where strange things happen. The first building he sees looks as flat as a painting (“and indeed very poorly painted. It looked completely false and unconvincing”) but then he opens the door and walks inside. And the atoms of things begin to exchange if they spend too long together. The postman, for instance, is seventy-one percent bicycle so far, and when you walk “the continual cracking of your feet on the road makes a certain quantity of road come up into you”. Separately, a man shows off a series of nested wooden chests he’s crafted over the years, each smaller than the last, so that “six years ago they began to get invisible”.

To the everyday inhabitants of the place all these little miracles and incongruities are interesting and perhaps impressive, but never incredible – a bit like photosynthesis and iPods and rainbows in the real world. Of all the people living there, he alone, a newcomer, is appalled by the weirdness of the stuff around him. The increasingly minute chests are being laid out on the table in front of him, now too small to be seen at all with the naked eye, and:

At this point I became afraid. What he was doing was no longer wonderful but terrible. I shut my eyes and prayed that he would stop while still doing things that were at least possible for a man to do. When I looked again I was happy that there was nothing to see and that he had put no more of the chests prominently on the table but he was working to the left with the invisible thing in his hand on a bit of the table itself. When he felt my look he came over to me and gave me an enormous magnifying-glass which looked like a basin fixed to a handle. I felt the muscles around my heart tightening painfully as I took the instrument.” (p. 76)

The awe of the protagonist holds the surface of these fictions away, so the reader isn’t launched uninitiated into the strangeness. The fictions of the chests and bicycles remain awesomely fictional to the reader because they are presented as both real and unbelievable.

But at the same time the credibility of the protagonist, and his incredulity of the story, weakens his function as a frame to the strangeness within narrative, and this brings the strangeness right up to the reader’s doorstep, along with a flamboyant risk of jeopardizing the integrity of the reader’s reality.

This volatile narrative structure is upset further by the occasional slips in the protagonist’s distance from the strangeness surrounding him. Once or twice – and I think it’s getting more frequent as I read on – there are indications that the protagonist is taking part in the weirdness around him and integrating it into his first-person account. Take a comment like this:

We were now going through a country full of fine enduring trees where it was always five o’clock in the afternoon.” (p. 83)

Here, not the impossibility of the fact that it’s always five o’clock, but rather the mere fact of it always being five o’clock is thrown right at us, inside the usually safe frame of the story, in the usually safe voice of the protagonist. The frame itself begins to betray us. So the whole constructed fiction has to shift up one level, until there’s nothing between the reader and the craziness of an impossibility we were once permitted to doubt.

I want to find my old notes about the ‘use-mention’ distinction in semantics.