The narrator of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds is a lazy student, who spends all his time in bed writing a novel about fictional author Dermot Trellis. Trellis is writing a book of his own but the characters in that book are frustrated by how poorly they are treated by their creator. At one point, Trellis invents a female character, then seduces her and fathers a fictional child. His characters become so frustrated that they drug their creator to gain some autonomy while he sleeps. Finally, Trellis's fictional son Orlick writes a story about his father in which Trellis is tortured and held on trial for his "crimes".
Sound confusing? It is supposed to be. O'Brien weaves together a complex story in which authors and their creations interact directly with one another in absurd ways. He includes tales of Irish folklore that include invisible fairies and the devil-like Pookas and empowers fictional characters with the ability to influence the author who created them.
The novel is difficult to read. Dialog is never delimited by quotation marks and the narration frequently shifts from an inner story to an outer story as characters interrupt one another in the middle of a story. Add to that the blurring between various realities and one can easily become lost. I frequently had to re-read sections to understand what was happening.
"At Swim-Two-Birds" is a novel within a novel within a novel in which the characters do not respect the boundaries of their own story. O'Brien displays enormous imagination and extraordinary discipline in keeping the stories consistent (if somewhat nonsensical) despite the multiple layers and plots.
He warns us from the start, when on page 1, O'Brien states:
"One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings."
And he delivers with a clever work of metafiction.