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What to Make of Finnegans Wake?


It took a year, on and off; more on than off. I read it in beds and on beaches, on airplanes, in the orthodontist’s waiting room, on the toilet (it is a people’s almanac, a book of lists), in Berkeley and in Brooklin, Maine. I even read it, in violation of house rules against dream-contamination, at the breakfast table. Over the course of that year I acquired five copies, of varying size and vintage, carried the lightest in my man-bag alongside phone, wallet, first aid kit, iPod, and a pair of little plastic doodads that permit maladroit Western children to eat potstickers with chopsticks, and took to scattering the others in various rooms of my house, where those children grew accustomed to the sight of that enigmatic object, “the Wake,” ubiquitous as the little black pylon that haunts the Fifties families on the sleeve of Led Zeppelin’s Presence.

In the wake of the Wake came, one by one, its courtiers: A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s Book of the Dark, A Finnegans Wake Concordance, The Books at the Wake, and all those other texts that put themselves forward, like a swarm of fezzed guides meeting a P&O liner, to ease and explicate the traveler’s passage through the teeming cryptopolis. At some point in the course of that year, my younger son and his classmates wrote poems about their parents, immortalizing their most salient aspects and traits, and in my son’s poem I am depicted, arrested for an instant in the midst of the eternity it must have seemed to him, “reading Finnegans Wake.” If in his poem he erected a kind of statue to his father, then Finnegans Wake was the pigeon that had come to roost on my hat.

“What’s it about?” the same boy asked me, not long after the omnipresent bird had first alighted on the paternal tricorne. This was, distantly, the second-most-frequent question I got when somebody saw or heard that I was reading Finnegans Wake, after Why? The latter question was often, I noticed, accompanied by a look of mild contempt or even disgust, a wrinkling of the nose. A reader steeped in the work of H.P. Lovecraft could not help observing that, to many educated people, there was something unmistakably loathsome about the Wake, a touch of Necronomicon, as though it had been bound in human hide.

Ellmann tells us that Joyce himself referred to the Wake, when composing it, as his “monster,” a pet name common enough, perhaps, among writers long indentured to the service of vast, metastasizing tomes. But in the case of the Wake the appellation seems to refer to more than its mere bulk, more than the seventeen years of obsessive and painful labor that the beast sucked from Joyce, as his eyesight and his health failed and the literary establishment, even that part that had acclaimed the genius of Ulysses, hinted in stage whispers that he was cracked. The monstrousness of the Wake is apparent even to the most casual visitor, wrought like teratisms into sentences that seem, as Lovecraft writes of dread Cthulhu’s city of R’lyeh, “abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.”

“Well…” I began, thinking that if I could explain the book to a seven-year-old, I might have some hope of explaining it to myself. Any reader of the Wake soon learns, thanks to that Lorre-esque rabble of textual ciceroni, the self-appointed locksmiths and cryptanalytic know-it-alls, that there are a number of viable ways to answer the question of what Finnegans Wake is about. The consensus reply, safe and broadly unmistaken, akin to going with “representative government” when asked to explain the point of the American Revolution, would be that Finnegans Wake attempts to recreate, by means of an invented language that Joyce derived from English, the flow and the flavor of a single night as it passes within the fitful, sleeping consciousness of a Dublin tavernkeeper named Earwicker or possibly Porter.

There is not a whole lot in the way of external action; by comparison to Finnegans Wake, Ulysses is Scaramouche. The sleeper rolls over. He grumbles. He farts. Late in the book, without quite waking, he fucks his wife, who lies asleep beside him. At numerous points, her dream narrative—along with those of their three children, and of all sleepers, everywhere, busy dreaming in Swahili and Gaelic and Norwegian and even (so lonely!) Volapuk—seems to intermingle with the protagonist’s, all the narratives running together, like rivers, into a single great confluent babel of dreams.

Attempting to give some other, perhaps simpler, answer to my son, I could have found support among derisive critics, cautious admirers and ardent partisans of the book for any of following alternatives:

(a) Hell if I know, kid.

(b) Nothing.

(c) Recurrence, figured through the heavy use of recurrent initials (HCE, ALP), recurrent digits (1132, 566), recurrent imagery (giants, towers, heaps and mounds), recurrent characters from jokes and literature (a Russian general who gets shot in the ass, Swift’s Vanessa), recurrent historical figures (Parnell, Napoleon, Saint Patrick), recurrent dyads (Adam and Eve, Mutt and Jeff), trinities (the Trinity), quartets (the Evangelists) and duodectets (jurors, apostles), recurrent snatches and snippets of balladry, recurrent garbled quotations from Swift, the Duke of Wellington, Mark Twain, etc.

Such recurrence is presumed to be an attribute of dreams, which thus (another, more dubious presumption, here derived from a fairly obscure Renaissance historiographer named Giambattista Vico, partial eponym of that commodius vicus that had stumped me back in Pittsburgh) becomes a metaphor for the whole of recurrent human history, from Adam and Eve to the martyred Parnell, from the Big Bang, a theory which Joyce seems vaguely to have intuited, to television, whose advent, in a novel published the same year that RCA introduced its first practical system at the New York World’s Fair, Joyce seems, nearsightedly, to have predicted.

(d) Everything, ever.

(e) Its author’s own super-cleverness, the daedalian prison in which Joyce starved his genius, having forgotten that, since a labyrinth is as hard to penetrate as to escape, most of Asterion’s intended meals must have failed to make it to the jaws and waiting belly at the labyrinth’s center.

(f) Rebellion, the style of the book constituting a colonial uprising in words, its sentences a series of blows against the empire of English, saboteur sentences that foul the reservoirs, cut the power lines, leave open the latches, throw infinite monkey wrenches into the works of the master language, which it was Joyce the Irishman’s bitter and ironic triumph to have mastered. Vandalism, revenge, the unhinged glee of insurrection.

(g) The reliable readiness of critics, doctoral candidates, and know-it-alls to enshrine difficulty for its own sake, to rise to the bait of erudite obscurity that Joyce laid for us in this, the greatest literary prank ever played (outside of revealed religion). By this accounting for Finnegans Wake—one of whose recurring figures is a deceptive tailor—the clothes have no emperor, and it is the few, not the many, who fall for the deception. As evidence for this claim are adduced numerous eyewitness accounts of Joyce’s going through the text, as with a pink semantic eraser, to efface, misspell, confound, delete, and repurpose the words of sentences that thereunto had been relatively (and thus excessively) clear and comprehensible.

(h) Joyce’s helplessness in the face of language, his glossolalia, the untrammeled riverine flow of words and wordplay in which James Joyce plunged, and swam, and drowned; the compulsive neologism that echoes, typifies, and indeed in a clinical sense accounts, genetically, for the schizophrenia—at times characterized by uncontrollable bursts of surprising and beautiful utterances—that afflicted his daughter, Lucia, and led to her eventual institutionalization.

(i) Incest, real or imagined, between father and daughter, between brother and sister; the memory of a sexual transgression (or of the wish to commit it) that the book repeatedly buries and exhumes, accuses and tries, denies and confesses, with a willing and helpless compulsion. Indeed at times the book seems to want us to understand that (not unlike Ada, whose narrator attempts to devise an entire alternate universe—a dreamland—in which incest can be an act of perfection and not of shame) its narrative has been constructed as kind of monstrous apology or rationalization for that crime or that desire.

I confessed to my son, in the end, that I was not sure. Sometimes I felt like I almost understood the Wake, and sometimes I felt like I was not supposed to understand it. Every so often I got so caught up in the hectic flow of its prose that I stopped worrying or wondering if I understood it or not. Read aloud—ah! read aloud—it was fun, headlong fun, as you shot the rhetorical rapids in a spinning, swamped whitewater raft.

“And check this out,” I said. I showed him how to work the thing, then, how to press the one obvious button on the surface of this device that was otherwise as impenetrable, as resistant to being opened, as some intricate new machine from the deepest skunkworks of Apple, Inc. I turned to the last page of the book, to the last broken, stutter-stepping sentence, and showed him how it twists like a Möbius ribbon around to meet that dangling inchworm at the start.

“A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun,” he read, skipping from the final page to the first, “past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation”—struggling with it—“back to Howth Castle & Environs.”

His face lit up, at the completion of that circuit, with genuine pleasure. He went back and forth, back and forth, and for a moment the book became a massive flipbook, of two frames’ duration. Then, looking puzzled, he asked me if James Joyce meant to suggest, by means of this device, that at the end of a night of dreaming, the night began all over again. I told him I guessed that was the general idea.

“I’m glad my dreams aren’t like that,” he said.


Other than its simple unreadability (indeed its apparent hostility to being read), the principal knock against the Wake—what Seamus Deane in his introduction to the Penguin edition calls “the gravamen of the charge against Joyce”—is that, in Deane’s paraphrase, Joyce “surrendered the ‘ordinary’ world, the world as represented in the great tradition of the realistic novel, for a world of capricious fantasy and inexhaustible word-play.” Eliot, Pound, Stanislaus Joyce, Frank Budgen, and other early champions of Ulysses found disappointment in this apparent surrender, and the truth is that, for all the real, nutritious, and hard-won pleasure that can be wrested from the Wake—as from a bucket of lobsters, by a determined reader with a pick and a cracker—anyone who has first loved or admired Ulysses must, as Joyce himself anticipated, find disappointment in Finnegans Wake.

Seventeen years of tireless labor by a mind blessed with a profound understanding of human vanity, with unparalleled gifts of sensory perception and the figuration thereof, and with one of the greatest prose styles in the English language produced a work that all too often, and for long stretches, can remind the reader (when not recalling Yertle the Turtle) of the Spike-Milligan- meets-Edward-Lear prose tossed off by the Writing Beatle in five minutes between tokes and takes of “Norwegian Wood.” But to find disappointment in the Wake’s, and Joyce’s, supposed turn away from approved modernist procedure, derived from Flaubert, which subjects shifting states of consciousness to the same rigorous accounting as the bibelots furnishing a provincial lady’s sitting room, is to miss the point.

Finnegans Wake is nowhere a work of fantasy or caprice, least of all at its most fantastic and capricious. In Ulysses, like Proust conducting his researches into lost time, Joyce showed that the clear eye and steady hand of the realist were adequate to the task of portraying states of consciousness, however fleeting or fragmentary, however stretched or shivered or distorted by the passage of time. In Finnegans Wake, with characteristic chutzpah, Joyce trained that modernist instrumentation on the stream of unconsciousness, and thereby, perhaps without meaning to do so, found realism’s limit.

Because my son was correct: once the charm has worn off the ouroboros sentence that begins and ends Finnegans Wake—perhaps the book’s best-known feature, apart from the thousands of river names wrought obsessively into the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” chapter—the reader is left with a sense of irrelevance, of wrongness, like that which always follows on Dorothy’s Wake: nobody’s dreams are like that. Repetition and recurrence, in dreams, are discontinuous, partial, illusory: often the sense of recurrence is itself a passing feature of the dream, as in a dream you might recognize your old apartment in Louisville, though in waking life you have never even been to Kentucky.

So, fine, the names of a thousand rivers are cleverly woven into “Anna Livia Plurabelle”; in Joyce’s Book of the Dark, John Bishop informs us that this catenation of names, from Aare to Zambezi, is intended to represent the flow of blood through the dreamer’s ears, echoing in the silence of the night. But in fact the river names do not themselves flow or hum or ring like circulating blood, any more than the names of pastas fill the belly, and the spectacular artfulness, the undeniable fun, of that famous chapter conveys nothing more about the nature of the dream state, in the end, than do three hundred singing Technicolor midgets finding a way to rhyme “witch” with “situation.”

Joyce seems to have been well aware of the failure that he was courting in the Wake. As he wrote to Miss Harriet Weaver of “Anna Livia Plurabelle”: “Either [it] is something or I am an imbecile in my judgment of language.” Joyce’s cartography of the dreaming unconscious is faulty, based as it is on false assumptions (the night is not circular), and on outmoded theories (dreams turn out to be no more rooted in the mythosphere than our destiny in the bumps on our heads), but most of all on the fundamental insufficiency of words to the task at hand. If modernism in literature may be defined as a realism of the unrepresentable, then the Wake turns out to be a proof of realism’s impossibility, of the insufficiency of the instruments of mimesis to capture, convey, or even accurately suggest the measureless surreality of dreams.

As my year of diving languorously into the murky waters of the Wake wore on, I came to feel that it was this failure, this impossibility, this grand futility of the Wake, that constituted its secret theme, its true aboutness. The Wake’s failure to render up a true account of the experience of dreaming, of the unconscious passage of a human consciousness across an ordinary night, was only a figure for a greater failure, a more fundamental impossibility. All the while that I was reading Joyce’s night book, I was busy at my day job: my Wake year was also my last spent at work on a novel whose composition had occupied me, on and off, from conception to completion, since the late 1990s.

As I groped my way toward the point at which Joyce’s hoop snake sinks its fangs into its own tail, the book that I was writing came ever nearer to its final state, and inevitably, habitually, as I came down the home stretch I began to look back, to compare the book at hand, four-hundred-plus pages of English prose sentences, in Times 12, double-spaced, to the book as I had first glimpsed it: that lovely apparition, hovering and beautiful as a vision of the New Jerusalem, wordless, perfect. Set alongside my original vision—that dream novel—the book I’d managed to carry across the span of years and drafts was at best, as always, a mere approximation, an unruly neighborhood into which had crowded the ganse mishpoche of nouns, verbs, pronouns, and adjectives. The idea for a book, the beckoning fair prospect of it, is the dream; the writing of it is the breakfast-table recitation, groping, approximation, and ultimately, always, a failure. It was not like that at all.

To write a novel is to betray it, and in this regard Finnegans Wake is only a book like any other; but it’s also, at the same time, a celebration of that betrayal, as wakes are always celebrations, and an act of defiance against the impossibility of realizing the dream, as the fallen builder Tim Finnegan, in the ballad that lends its title to Joyce’s book, defies death itself for the sake of a drop of Jameson’s. “I’m at the end of English,” Joyce is said to have declared, as he began work on Finnegans Wake; and so he ventured beyond that fatal bourne.

This, to me, was the wisdom—the potable water, the fungible currency, the capering troop of Sea-Monkeys—left me by the Wake. If the language we have inherited, have had imposed upon us, proves unfit to our purpose in catching hold of the darting apparition of our dream book (as it always will, for the job is impossible), then we must reinvent it. The writing of every novel, and not just some polyglot punster’s babbling Book of Kells, requires this act of invention, the creation of a personal Volapük. For each book you must devise an idiolect, a working creole you compound by embedding the fine-grained matrix of your mother tongue with the coarse aggregate of the world—a Yiddish-speaking Alaskan Jerusalem, a four-color Nazi-haunted Metropolis, a nighttown Pittsburgh of gangsters and gay boys—that you have dreamed, with its argots and geographies, ethnologies and etiquettes. The limits of language are not the stopping point, says the Wake; they are the point at which we must begin to tell the tale.


On the Vico Road September 27, 2012

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