He walked back to the dresser, opened the lower part of it, and took out a little chest till he put it on the table for my inspection. […]

‘I will tell you a story and give you a synopsis of the ramification of the little plot,’ he said. ‘When I had the chest made and finished, I tried to think what I would keep in it ans what I would use it for at all. First I thought of them letters from Bridie, the ones on the blue paper with the strong smell but I did not think it would be anything but a sacrilege in the end because there was hot bits in them letters. Do you comprehend the trend of my observations?’

‘I do,’ I answered.

‘Then there was my studs and the enamel badge and my presentation iron-pencil with a screw on the end of it to push the point out, an intricate article full of machinery and a Present from Southport. All these things are what are called Examples of the Machine Age.’

‘They would be contrary to the spirit of the chest,’ I said.

‘They would be indeed. Then there was my razor and the spare plate in case I was presented with an accidental bash on the gob in the execution of me duty …’

‘But not them.’

‘Not them. Then there was my certificates and me cash and the picture of Peter the Hermit and the brass thing with the straps that I found on the road one night near Matthew O’Carahan’s. But not them either.’

‘It is a hard conundrum,’ I said.

‘In the end I found there was only thing to do to put myself right with my private conscience.’

‘It is a great thing that you found the right answer at all,’ I countered.

‘I decided to myself,’ said MacCruiskeen, ‘that the only sole correct thing to contain in the chest was another chest of the same make but littler in cubic dimension.’

The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien (1967; 2007: 72-3)

The trouble with an exquisitely manufactured wooden chest is that it remains incomplete until you can find something appropriately exquisite to put inside it. MacCruiskeen casts around among his worldly possessions for symbolic objects; groups of related articles; even random collections of artifacts, but none fits: they would be sacrilegious, or contrary to the spirit of the chest, or just not right. The objects he considers are all full with the stories of the everyday life he’s been living and are all perfectly good (meaningful, interesting, complete) objects, but they are a hopelessly random handful of the infinite things they could have been.

What comes out is the absurdity of drawing a line around certain items, both to group them together and to promote them as worthy of framing. The frame is what counts, but a frame is only a frame when it frames something.

MacCruiskeen’s solution is to defer the problem by making another chest to fit snugly inside – making another frame for the frame to frame – and then to go on making more and more and more chests until the last half dozen are increasingly invisible. The chest contains nothing but itself, and the chest he is currently working on is almost devoid of existence: “nearly as small as nothing”. (p.76)

Something interesting happens to this smallest chest: it is accidentally knocked onto the floor and the two men responsible are violently directed onto their hands and knees to find “something that could not be felt or seen and that was really too small to be lost at all”. (p.117) Eventually one of the men gives up and, with “a broad private wink” to his fellow on the floor, pretends to find the article and deposits it back on the table. MacCruiskeen is no fool and is aware of the con, but “by a rare chance he did accidentally close his hand on the chest and it was the chest and nothing else that he replaced in due course on the table”. (p.118 )

When the chest is infinitely small and can neither be felt nor seen, we have to ask ourselves whether or not it matters that MacCruiskeen might be mistaken. The purpose of the inner chests is to satisfy the framing function of the first chest by filling it, and to infinitely defer the problem of the matter. The final extrapolation of the deferral reduces the matter to nil, or worse – to indistinctness. The chest refuses to frame anything in particular (not love letters, not a retractable pencil), but neither does it frame nothing. It settles on an ambiguity between presence and absence, but even then our choice remains limited to more of the same: the frame ultimately frames either a frame or no frame. Never a retractable pencil.

In light of this it seems the author is indicating a hopeless flaw in the novel: it’s got stuff in it. A bunch of things and people and events rattle around inside, in detail, and it’s a regrettable inevitability that that’s the only way it can work. The novel needs stuff to prop itself up on: it needs to hold its shape open with recognizable, malleable placeholders. So we have policemen, we have a murder, we have a cash box, we have trees and mud and birds. The pile of rejected items conjured in MacCruiskeen’s search strikes me as a parody of the stuff unavoidably going on in the novel itself, and the restless arbitrariness of having to pick one thing, one person, one event, over another.

My assumption is that O’Brien first had certain structures in mind, and then had to fill them out with stuff so that they would keep their shape. I’m imagining a process of matching up. It is possible that he has done this picking and matching process very well, and even so well that the placeholders have begun to retrospectively lose their arbitrariness and stretch back into the structure itself, and inhere in it. In novels like this one the work is the structure – the chest – the frame; and perhaps we can think of these placeholders as the medium. (A tantalizing question is whether The Third Policeman could have been written otherwise, with none of the same placeholders, but remaining the same book.) The placeholder-structure relationship must be as complex as the contamination of medium in artworks that begin in the mind rather than in material, and must include exquisite moments of chance tessellation as well as fraying and bleeding between the two.

I’m not sure whether or not there’s a definitive line to be drawn between structure and stuff. After all our conceptions of structures must come from somewhere, and I think we have nothing but stuff to model them on.