The Third Policeman

My daughter and I finished watching LOST last year; her for the first time, me for the second. One part of LOST is that the writers and producers dropped references to related books and movies and historical figures loosely related to the events of the show. One of them was The Third Policeman, which sounded interesting enough that I put it on my list of books to read. It made it to the top of the queue last month, so I expended an Audible subscription credit and got the audiobook.

It was difficult. The book tells the story of an orphaned boy who grows up at a boarding school and becomes obsessed with a mostly-forgotten philosopher with ridiculous and counterfactual views. When he returns to his inherited home and pub, it has been commandeered by the unsavoury caretaker. They live in an uneasy entente, make bad plans and execute them.

Then, the plot lurches into the surreal. It has a deeply Kafkaesque quality; in each scene, the reader is completely dragged into the protagonist’s irrational frame of reference, goals, and tactics. But as soon as you’ve settled in, it swerves into a different context, with a whole new frame of reference, completely upside-down from the previous one.

I had to put the book aside for a few days. I found it anxiety-producing to invest my attention and concern in the book’s story, since the plot points didn’t ever pay off. It felt difficult to read, and I didn’t have the energy or gumption for it.

But I decided to pull it together again and do a difficult thing even though I didn’t want to. So I dove back into the book, and I’m glad I did. Eventually, ever so slightly, the discarded plot structures start to resolve. Not easily or completely, but they recur, turn back on themselves, and construct a satisfying narrative.

There are themes that I really like in the book. The most interesting for me was the counterintuitive philosophies proposed by the protagonist’s literary hero (e.g., the night is caused by volcanoes), and referenced at different points, with no practical application. It had the real feel of ridiculous philosophers’ conjectures, which you can’t quite disprove in your mind, but which also don’t ever connect to the world as lived.

There are a lot of bicycles. The narrator is critically unreliable. The realism is magical. All of those things connected for me. The book has a plot twist at the end that’s good enough not to spoil, but it doesn’t wrap up the story too neatly. I found it satisfying.

Overall, it was a good book to read. I’m glad I took the time and concentration to get into it. I think I might be over the time of the pandemic where I’m paddling in the shallow end to protect my mental health. I can read hard books.

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