'Is It About a Bicycle?': Categorically Imperative Bikes in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman [From BA 42-400]

Flann O'Brien Evan Schneider Best of Boneshaker

"All the policemen want to talk about is wheels and saddles and handlebars. They ride bikes everywhere and treat them as equals..."

About a third of the way through Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman things get a little wonky. The floor of the book falls out and the narrator, who has killed a person in want of a large stash of money, turns around and sees the deceased person he's just killed sitting in a chair in the robbed house. This in itself is not as startling as what happens and continues to happen in different capacities for the remainder of the book: the narrator has a very real and very lengthy conversation with this dead man, as well as with his own personified inner consciousness, and it passes without much comment—O’Brien handles the supernatural naturally, and so it goes until the novel’s conclusion where there waits a weirdly beautiful bicycle ride.

The bicycle itself serves an important role in the novel’s scaffolding. When our main character seeks asylum at the police station, for example, the policemen presumptively ask, “Is it about a bicycle?” and from then on bikes aren’t far from the action or the story's underlining philosophy. The psyches of the book’s policemen are themselves locked to bicycles. From the moment we meet them it seems that all the policemen want to talk about is wheels and saddles and handlebars. They wonder over them. They hypothesize about them. They ride bikes everywhere and treat them as equals. They even believe bicycles are capable of committing crimes without a rider.

The very cosmos these policemen inhabit is predicated on bicycle ownership. At one point, the narrator admits that he’s never ridden a bicycle and the police officers stare silently at him in disbelief as if he’s from a different planet. The policemen find it so implausible that this man has never ridden a bicycle that for them it's far more believable that the universe is composed of nothing but thumbtacks (literally). In short, the idea of not owning and riding a bicycle is wholly (and, again, literally) out-of-this-world. The bicycle is a fundamental truth, as celestially imperative as gravity or time. Bicycles, within the pages of The Third Policeman, are a constant and unwavering integer in the equation of human life.

Near the end of the book, after our narrator has been found out and kept captive for his crime, he has a chance to make a getaway—on a bicycle, of course—and when he does, the escape goes fluidly, as if the bicycle itself is complicit and willingly aids him on his way. True to the policemen’s worldview, the bicycle has been kept all this while in its own cell in case it tried to do something sneaky or illicit, and so the two make a lovely pair as they glide away. One of the many wonders of The Third Policeman is its portrayal of the obscure heights to which the bicycle is capable of being elevated and personified, if not also totally deified.

And here you were, thinking you were weird for just naming your bike.


From The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (1967), Dalkey Archives, second printing, 2002:

“The bicycle itself seemed to have some peculiar quality of shape or personality which gave it distinction and importance far beyond that usually possessed by such machines. It was extremely well-kept with a pleasing lustre on its dark-green bars and oil-bath and a clean sparkle on the rustless spokes and rims. Resting before me like a tame domestic pony, it seemed unduly small and low in relation to the Sergeant yet when I measured its height against myself I found it bigger than any other bicycle I knew. This was possibly due to the perfect proportion of its parts which combined merely to create a thing of surpassing grace and elegance, transcending all standards of size and reality and existing only in the absolute validity of its own unexceptionable dimensions. Notwithstanding the sturdy cross-bar it seemed ineffably female and fastidious, posing there like a mannequin rather than leaning idly like a loafer against the wall, and resting on its prim flawless tyres with irreproachable precision, two tiny points of clean contact with the level floor. I passed my hand with unintended tenderness—sensuously, indeed—across the saddle. Inexplicably it reminded me of a human face, not by any simple resemblance of shape or feature but by some association of textures, some incomprehensible familiarity at the fingertips. The leather was dark with maturity, hard with a noble hardness and scored with all the sharp lines and finer wrinkles which the years with their tribulations had carved into my own countenance. It was a gentle saddle yet calm and courageous, unembittered by its confinement and bearing no mark upon it save that of honourable suffering and honest duty. I knew that I liked this bicycle more than I had ever liked any other bicycle, better even than I had liked some people with two legs. I liked her unassuming competence, her docility, the simple dignity of her quiet way. She now seemed to rest beneath my friendly eyes like a tame fowl which will crouch submissively, awaiting with out-hunched wings the caressing hand. Her saddle seemed to spread invitingly into the most enchanting of all seats while her two handlebars, floating finely with the wild grace of alighting wings, beckoned to me to lend my mastery for free and joyful journeyings, the lightest of light running in the company of the swift groundwinds to safe havens far away, the whir of the true front wheel in my ear as it spun perfectly beneath my clear eye and the strong fine back wheel with unadmired industry raising gentle dust on the dry roads. How desirable her seat was, how charming the invitation of her slim encircling handle-arms, how unaccountably competent and reassuring her pump resting warmly against her rear thigh!

With a start I realised that I had been communing with this strange companion and—not only that—conspiring with her. Both of us were afraid of the same Sergeant, both were awaiting the punishments he would bring with him on his return, both were thinking that this was the last chance to escape beyond his reach; and both knew that the hope of each lay in the other, the we would not succeed unless we went together, assisting each other with sympathy and quiet love...” 

Evan P. Schneider