Books Magazine

50 Book Pledge #15: James Joyce—Finnegans Wake

Posted on the 24 August 2012 by Jake Cole @notjustmovies
Regular readers might remember my original plans to offer regular updates on my trek through Joyce's final and most abstruse work, Finnegans Wake. But as soon as I set to work on that, the book dove so deeply into incomprehensibility that to even attempt to summarize what I'd read would consist of nothing more than Skeleton Key summaries. Unlike Ulysses, with its connected but distinct chapters offering unique perspectives and pleasures at every turn, the Wake varied as its sections are, flow together with such abandon that I got nowhere trying to parse individual elements of the book/
It was only when I stopped trying to get a handle on the book, to even get a basic footing of where I was, that I even began to get into the Wake. Around that time, however, the book started to make some kind of sense. Based around Viconian cycles, the Wake is, narratively speaking, easy to figure out. After all, Joyce repeats the story ad nauseam, of the protagonist's social rise and subsequent fall from grace over a lewd encounter in a park and his irrepressible guilt. The same characters appear to reenact the basics over and over, each time as new figures with new, gnarlier paths to the same outlet. And in HCE's all-pervasive sense of guilt is the guilt of Ireland past and present, an anthropomorphic realization of the suffocating cloud of Catholicism that hovers over Joyce's ex-pat recreation of his homeland. The only deliverance comes through the water form of HCE's wife, ALP, whose mysterious letter has the power to wash away her husband's sins (or her husband entirely). But ALP, like Joyce's best women characters—Molly Bloom, Gretta Conroy—exists outside her husband's hopeless encasement in Ireland's moral carbon monoxide. ALP's chapter, filled with river names and the constant burbling of water imagery, is perhaps the most poetic, liberated passage Joyce ever wrote.
Other aspects of the story slowly coalesced around these relatable touchstones. The twin sons of HCE, each representing a half of his personality, although not split along the lines one might expect. Shaun, the twin with the capacity for public leadership, is also the one who is insecure, petty and conservative. Shem, disdained by all, is not only the intellectual force that could give that leadership weight but is also the sexual curiosity that will ultimately lay HCE low (the kind of curiosity that can turn to depravity if repressed by the uptight forces of Shaun). Shem, naturally, is meant to be Joyce, which is both deceptively humble self-aggrandizement and, in the case of the chapter that brutally, hilariously castigates Shem, the purest self-flagellation of this guilt-besodden novel. But again, he's really the hero of his own book. Perhaps the cleverest aspect of the entire book, Shem slowly teaching his oblivious brother about sex via the geometrical representation of their mother's vagina, plunges into new depths of sexual morass, but this also reveals the triumphant humanity of this figure when he forgives his infuriated, eroticized and scandalized brother's subsequent outburst.
Entire chunks of the Wake are a mystery to me and shall likely remain so for years, if not my entire life. To even recognize a reference, historical or lingual (or both), in one of Joyce's polyglot puns marked a victory. The only way to get through it was to read it aloud, where the flow of the language barreled over its insensibility. But this also brought out the real hook of the novel, its incessant ability to get a laugh. Anthony Burgess rightfully praised this facet of Finnegans Wake, and regardless of how much one understands of the chapter of the kids doing their homework, or of the nightmarish collage of stories and media at play in HCE's tavern (a prescient bit of attention-deficit sensory overload), this is one of the funniest, cheekiest books ever written.
Already, I see the Wake everywhere I turn. So deliberately obscure, its depths can lure the reader into solving its dream puzzles at the expense of ignoring the surface-level delights that are so dense and ahead of their time that modern works can be tied to them. When I saw David Lynch's Wild at Heart and, even more recently, Lost Highway, the former's pan-temporal existence of all pop culture at once and the latter's Möbius-strip, transfiguring structure instantly called to mind Joyce's magnum opus. I see fragments of it in other films, music, literature and art, and some of its puns even seem to anticipate more modern phrases or events. I have never been so routinely dejected while reading a book, but as each absurdity or deft bit of idioglossia kept me going, my appreciation for this masterwork grew and grew. And if it is so regularly bewildering, that is only because nothing can be said to be like it, even though everything before and after it seems to lead to and issue forth from its oneiric, river language.

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