Flann O'Brien's the Hard Life & the Gaze of the Medusa
Murphy, Neil, The Review of Contemporary Fiction
"Average reality begins to rot and stink as soon as the act of individual creation ceases to animate a subjectively perceived texture." Vladimir Nabokov (Strong Opinions )
The range of critical views that Flann O'Brien's The Hard Life has attracted since its modestly successful public reception in 1961 is more diverse and frequently contradictory than that received by any of his other novels. Many critics have observed, for example, that the conversations between Collopy and Father Fahrt are empty rhetorical games, a view supported by the decidedly inexpressive narrator, Finbarr's, observation that "[a] s usual, the subject under discussion was never named" (30). Anthony Cronin suggests that these conversations represent the central achievement of the novel, claiming that they are "classics of pointless dialectic" (215), a point echoed by M. Keith Booker, but extended to suggest that almost "all of the language in The Hard Life is ... without the backing of any firm conviction" (93). Similarly, Thomas Shea contends that the novel becomes an exploration of how "discourses collapse, sounding only a desperately squalid void" (142), and Keith Donohue argues that throughout the novel, "[w]ords, things, and events are treated as epistemological uncertainties" (185).
Despite the frequency of such poststructuralist-inclined perspectives, Anne Clissman describes the novel as "O'Brien's most normal picture of reality" (272), while Jonathan Bolton considers The Hard Life to be a "comic bildungsroman: a peculiar hybrid formulation that mimics the expectations of self-cultivation, but then subverts its own narrative trajectory" (18) and he also argues that the novel is a "cynical representation of a culture and way of life that is beyond reform or hope or change" (121). Bolton's view of the novel as cultural critique is clear and in particular he points to the novel's representation of a culture of "neglect, alcohol dependency, and an absurdly unstable surrogate family environment" (121), concluding that the "narrator's symbolic splurge at the end of the novel confirms O'Brien's cynical attitude towards reform in Ireland" (128). However tenuous this final assertion might be, Bolton's essay is indicative of a general movement, in critical terms, away from a consideration of the novel as a postmodern or poststructuralist text, or as self-referential epistemological satire, towards an emphasis on the sociopolitical implications of a novel that, in O'Brien's catalogue, offers a relatively direct realist focus. For example, Joseph Brooker rightly points out that The Hard Life significantly develops the O'Brien canon in its representation of "two subjects largely absent from the early fiction: women and the church" (76), and Keith Hopper argues that the novel is a "post-colonial satire of de Valera's Ireland (with its anti-pluralist constitution which privileged the role of the Catholic Church)" (54). He also suggests the need for, and offers, a feminist reading of The Hard Life. These observations are rooted in what Hopper terms a "surface commitment by O'Brien as a cultural observer to show the structures and ideologies which underlie his society" (55). While Hopper is cautious enough to acknowledge the "surface" nature of this commitment, it is clear that O'Brien's level of engagement with social reality is more direct than in his previous novels. Despite this, Hopper points to O'Brien's misogynistic tendencies, to which the novelist himself appears blind. There is ample textual evidence in The Hard Life, and elsewhere, to support Bolton's, Brooker's and Hopper's readings and what their respective arguments register is that this novel offers a site for discussion of ideological readings that At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman do not. Female characters have greater presence, if not necessarily active importance, in The Hard Life than in any of the other novels and the biting satire of Dublin life, the Catholic Church, and Irish political structures, are all evident. …