At Swim-Two-Birds

by Brian O’Nolan
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In At Swim-Two-Birds, why does O'Brien interrupt the story of Sweeny to go back to the narrator's other plot? How does it relate to what went on before?

In At Swim Two Birds, O'Brien interrupts the story of Sweeney to go back to the narrator's other plot because that plot is the frame story for the entire book. It is the narrator who is telling several different stories, one of whose characters is the Irish legend Mad King Sweeney.

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At Swim-Two-Birds is a classic example of what's called metafiction. Simply put, this means that it's a piece of fiction that draws attention to the fact that it's a piece of fiction. The frame story, the main narrative that sets the stage for the other stories in the book,...

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At Swim-Two-Birds is a classic example of what's called metafiction. Simply put, this means that it's a piece of fiction that draws attention to the fact that it's a piece of fiction. The frame story, the main narrative that sets the stage for the other stories in the book, is told by an unnamed Irish student of literature living with an uncle who works at the Guinness brewery in Dublin. He proceeds to spin a number of disjointed yarns, full of strange characters that often seem to pop up out of nowhere—such as a couple of American cowboys—and over which the frame story narrator appears to have no control.

One of the stories told by the narrator is that of the legendary Mad King Sweeney, a character from Celtic mythology. But as one might expect in such a highly experimental work of fiction, this is no ordinary retelling of an old, familiar tale. And the legend isn't even recounted by the narrator, but by Dermot Trellis, a writer of Westerns and one of the narrator's own creations.

In an episode that further emphasizes the book's status as metafiction, Mad King Sweeney joins forces with the other characters created by Trellis in a bid to overthrow their creator. So characters created by a character who in turn was created by another character want to overthrow the character who created them. It really doesn't get more metafictional than that.

However, the narrator exercises his authorial privilege by saving Trellis from his own characters. He simply cannot allow Mad King Sweeney and his other fictional creations to get the upper hand. So the frame story reasserts itself, leaving the Irish student narrator with the last word.

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