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Friday, June 29, 2018

Reading the Unreadable - #1: Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce

When I committed myself to reading the most unreadable books, I didn't foresee that I would be sorely challenged from the very outset to make it to the end of one of these things.  Never has a book filled me with the desire to give up out of such utter frustration as has "Finnegan's Wake".  However, I am nothing if not stubborn, and although it feels like it took half my life, I made it to the end.  Although I'm sure this stream of consciousness writing will resonate with me for quite some time.
I'm not going to say that I understand even a tenth of Finnegan's Wake; I don't have the nerve or the energy to support that kind of lie.
But then, I don't think understanding is what Finnegan's Wake is meant for.  This is not a story in the traditional sense, whatever else it may be.
For me, reading Finnegan's Wake was something of a Zen experience.  Koan-like, I was only able to make any kind of progress when I stopped looking for meaning.  The secret to this book is to treat it as an utterly numinous experience, read it at a normal reading pace in spite of its lack of coherence and appreciate the form, rhythm, and - at times- the sheer ludicrousness of the book.
Joyce's style famously combines stream of consciousness with a Shakespeare-like facility for inventing words and all manner of puns, spoonerisms and malapropisms into a work that seems, ultimately, to be an exercise in form.  It defies meaning while maintaining a structure that implies and promises that very meaning.  In so doing, it causes the reader to question how it is that meaning is taken from anything.  Just as a reading of Freud or Barthe can force a psychological or symbolic interpretation of nearly anything, so does Joyce's work here cause a metaphysical analysis of literary form, literature and ultimately language itself.  Like the old trick of repeating a common word until it loses all meaning, this book deconstructs the meaning of all its words in order to examine the meaning behind all words. 
Finnegan's Wake is considered a great novel, in spite of so few people having actually read it. It would be glib to say that people consider it great because they don't understand it, but in truth, it is that lack of understanding in spite of the reading that makes the novel great.
That and the fact that James Joyce took 17 years of his life to create a work of utter nonsense, of course.

Disagree with me?  I'd be happy to hear about it.  Leave a comment and tell me why I'm wrong.
Also, be sure to check out the AIM Comics Twitter feed; I've been posting thoughts on this book as I read it, and will continue to do so for the rest of the books in this series.
See you next time when I attempt Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury".  Wish me luck.