John O’Brien: The Man Who Would Ban Happy Endings

The first original book Dalkey published was Where Do You Put the Horse?, a collection of critical essays by Metcalf, who happened to be the great-grandson of another writer on the outskirts of what was fashionable in his time, Herman Melville. Mr. O’Brien said the connection between publishing and criticism is “absolute.” The very act of publishing a book with the press carries the heavy significance of “a Dalkey book,” though Mr. O’Brien still isn’t exactly sure what that means. Certain terms get tossed around–experimental, postmodern, avant-garde–but Mr. O’Brien likes what he likes. He prefers the term “subversive.” He has still published plenty of “conventional” novels in terms of content and style. And some works–Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, a few books by Hubert Selby, the National Book Award-winning Voices from Chernobyl–have raised the question from his staff, “Is this a Dalkey book?” when placed beside books by Mr. Gass and Sorrentino or younger writers like Ben Marcus and Aleksander Hemon.

Pigeonholing Dalkey is as difficult as summarizing The Tunnel. Flann O’Brien, whose final novel gave the press its name and whose work is now a part of its list, is a case in point. The Dalkey Archive is a comedy in the tradition of Moll Flanders or Tristram Shandy, a novel that is a parody of the whole genre. In a climactic scene that recalls Laurence Sterne’s diagram that attempts–and fails–to make sense of the plot in Tristram Shandy, James Joyce appears as a character–long believed to be dead–to tell us Ulysses was a “collection of smut” and denies writing it. Mr. O’Brien has been a champion of this kind of fuck-you writing since the beginning of his career. He wishes there was more of it.

“We’re in a strange time in which art is marginalized in public practices,” he said. “The best thing that could happen for art in this country–I’m half-serious in saying this–is that censorship would be imposed. Art would suddenly come through a level of awareness that I don’t think it has in contemporary America, especially literature. We had a critic take issue recently with a book who said, ‘The problem with this book is the characters are not likable.’ Was Raskolnikov likable? I mean, would you like to live next door to Hamlet? That should be the first act of censorship: Characters cannot be likable for 25 years. And no happy endings.”

Just before the National Book Critics Circle Awards began, Mr. O’Brien stood by the stage with Mr. Gass and Steve Kellman, a critic and NBCC board member. They were discussing the presentation of the award.

“I’m gonna be brief,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Tell some great anecdotes,” he said to Mr. Gass. “Or make something up.”

“Or you could just give a plot summary of The Tunnel,” Mr. Kellman said.

“You could read The Tunnel,” Mr. O’Brien said. Mr. Gass guffawed. “We’re in the second edition of it now.”

Mr. Gass flashed a look of sincere disbelief. “Really?” he said.

A voice came from the speakers to inform the literary cognoscenti, which was starting to seep in through the doors, wet with rain, what to do in case of a fire. Jonathan Franzen took a seat quietly near the front. Patti Smith walked down the aisle with a cup of coffee from a deli. Jennifer Egan was all smiles sitting next to her husband.

“Everybody scream and run!” Mr. Gass said.

“You’re all going to die,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Isn’t that the real message here?”

“That would be it for the contemporary literary cul
ture of America,” said Mr. Kellman.

A few moments later, everyone was seated and Mr. Kellman introduced Dalkey, calling it “a canon of American avant-garde.” Mr. Gass sauntered up to the stage, first thanking God he did not fall and praying for a safe trip back down.

“There are a surprising lot of us many find strange to this land,” he said. “We have come to Dalkey, some of us, to escape. To find readers worthy of our words, if I may brag bag loads, although we are modest under normal circumstances–retired, shocked, unread even by friends. Dalkey Archive’s list is a banner of victory. It stands for a war that John O’Brien fought almost by himself to keep these books in print in a language we were willing to read. To get some of them read. To teach us, as that scoundrel Columbus did, how wide the literary world is, how stocked with artistic offenses we have, before now, refused to acknowledge.”

Mr. O’Brien stood before the publishing elite, smiled and listened to the applause. It was the kind of happy ending he could accept.

mmiller@observer.com