77. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce

Hi kids! I'd originally intended for this review to go up on Monday, but then on Sunday I decided to start watching season 7 of The X-Files, and I couldn't stop until I finished it on Wednesday, at which point my sister and I started playing the new Twisted Metal game. But here's this review at long last. Unfortunately, this book had a sort of Bend in the River type of effect on me, so I'm going to be reading whatever the hell I want for the next while, before I get to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I'll try to keep posting roughly weekly, though, even if it's just random ponderings about stuff. Anyway, enjoy :) -M.R.

Uncomfortable Plot Summary: James Joyce trolls the entire literary establishment OR the soundtrack of Hell.

An actual photo of James Joyce taken during the writing of Finnegans Wake.

Year Published: 1939
Pages: 628
First Sentence: riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
Rating: 0/3 (burn any copy you encounter)


I've been thinking for a long while now, especially since I stopped reading the romnovs, what a shame it is that none of the books have gotten me very riled up.

And then came Finnegans Wake.


Fuck this book. Fuck it and the apparent legions of people who think that it's amazing or somehow funny. Fuck the Modern Library board members who put it on the list of greatest novels. Fuck everything.

Because Finnegans Wake is absolutely not a novel and I refuse to call it one.

If you haven't heard of Finnegans Wake and you're wondering why I'm so angry about it and why I whined about it on Twitter for two weeks, well! I didn't know anything about it either, until I was reading Kim and decided to see whether the "pocket" James Joyce on my bookshelf (another book that I inherited from an elderly and/or deceased relative) contained the full text of Finnegans Wake so that I wouldn't have to worry about getting it from the library. Alas no, Finnegans Wake is anything but pocket-sized, but in its preface to the selections of Finnegans Wake that it does contain, the pocket James Joyce states

The fact that critics have already arrived at a rough agreement as to its methods and premises, its characters and situations, is a testimonial to the artistic sincerity and intellectual rigor of Joyce's last book. But it would not be worth the trouble of elucidation if it did not offer the immediate satisfactions of humor and poetry. Its texture is so close, its structure so organic, that it cannot yet be considered readable in the sense of an ordinary novel. . . . [Its] circular construction . . . invites us to plunge in almost anywhere. By printing certain fragments in pamphlet form, however, Joyce seems to have recognized that they were especially attractive and instructive for this purpose.

Somehow that didn't worry me. I think my thoughts were somewhere between "Excellent, a novel version of 'The Night Pat Murphy Died'!" and "Well, surely it's no worse than The Ginger Man!"

And then two pages later the pocket James Joyce offered this, under the heading "Here Comes Everybody":

Yet may we not see still the brontoichthyan form outlined aslumbered, even in our own nighttime by the sedge of the troutling stream that Bronto loved and Brunto has a lean on. Hic cubat edilis. Apud liberatinam parvulam. Whatif she be in flags or flitters, reekierags or sundyechosies, with a mint of mines or beggar pinnyweight.


Arrah, sure, we all love little Anny Ruiny, or, we mean to say, lovelittle Anna Rayiny, when unda her brella, mid piddle med puddle, she ninny-nannygoes nancing by. Yoh! Brontolone slaaps, yoh snores.


Upon Benn Heather, in Seeple Isout too. The cranic head on him, caster of his reasons, peer yuthner in yondmist. Whooth?


And this gibberish goes on for pages and pages and pages and pages and pages and six hundred and twenty-eight pages of complete nonsense.

Gentle reader, I almost gave up, and better books (relatively, that is) have beaten me before this one. But I found an audiobook, and that's how I "read" the vast majority of the book. (I'm going to discuss that sort of separately in another post, because I have Thoughts About It, but let's get back to the task at hand.)

Finnegans Wake is pretty much the number one reason why I have this blog in the first place i.e. to see whether the classics of (modern) literature have any relevance for an ordinary reader. And this one, at least, does not. There's no plot or characters that I can tell you about. There isn't even a writing style beyond this sort of breathless free fall of multilingual puns and portmanteaus. Occasionally some sort of structure and possibly even narrative surfaces, only to sink below the surface on the next page. Listening to the audiobook made my head hurt, and I'm absolutely positive that this book is read in an endless loop, booming down through all the circles of Hell to torment the damned even further than the eternal fires ever could.

I think what makes me most angry about this book, though, is that it's obviously a masterpiece. (Just not a fucking novel or at all enjoyable to read, look at, or have in one's home. At best it's a puzzle, at worst an elaborate joke.) This book represents a feat that would be impossible for any other human being to duplicate. But it's not a feat that I can really respect. It was a huge fucking waste of my time to read, and I would've given up on it within five pages if it weren't for my completionist sensibilities and commitment to this blog lol. What boggles my mind even more is the apparently vast machinery of books and websites and normal people who are absolutely dedicated to Finnegans Wake in ways that I don't even understand. Just gonna throw this out there, but if you say that Finnegans Wake is funny (seriously where the fuck does this claim come from?) or, like, worth anybody's time to try to read, I probably will respect you a little bit less, too.

Meaning that I can't love Anthony Burgess quite so much anymore (what with A Clockwork Orange at least appearing to be very much under the Joycean influence—from a random page of it: "All the time we were sirening off to the rozz-shop, me being wedged between two millicents and being given the odd thump and malenky tolchock by these smecking bullies."), or Mark Z. Danielewski either (random bit of Only Revolutions: "GAS STATION MAN, stiffed by our approach. Unsafe for all HE's stashed and stayed. Withering, calcifying. Splayed. Because everyone we blow by, we blow away.").

These crazy Finnegans Wake apologists tend to talk about the book like it's immensely readable, and while I'll give Stephen Fry's gently effusive praise of Ulysses the benefit of the doubt for now, I've experienced Finnegans Wake and it may or may not have almost killed me, and I absolutely don't think it deserves to be on The List, even as a masterpiece, even as a powerful influence on some writers I like a lot. I can't learn anything from a book that I'm unable to understand. If James Joyce seriously expected me and the rest of his readers to devote our lives to this, then he's kind of a dick, no matter how sad he was about going blind or his daughter's schizophrenia (I had to learn a lot more about this book than I usually do about the books on The List, just to make it bearable and, like, try to understand what was going on).

Anyway, Finnegans Wake is the cinnamon challenge of books. Don't attempt to read it just because you think that it can't be as bad as everyone says it is, and you're smarter than the rest of us, and all that bullshit. You'll save yourself a lot of grief and rage if you just avoid it entirely.



  1. "Burn any copy you encounter" = possibly my favourite review summary of yours. We'll have to discuss this further in person some time!

    1. Agreed!

      (I basically envision this as a sort of video game scenario where Finnegans Wake lurks in dark corners waiting for unsuspecting readers and you basically have to fire bomb it on sight.)

  2. Hard to believe you read the whole book and didn't get a thing out of it. Although you probably shouldn't have read it for the sake of completion, that's a terrible idea. You should have read it because you liked it (or just not read it because you hated it).
    The thing that annoys me most about your review (and most reviews about Finnegans Wake)is that you claim the book is rubbish because you didn't understand it. It's fair enough that you didn't understand it but that's no reason to say the book is shit. I'm pretty sure you don't understand quantum physics but that doesn't mean it's nonsense.
    Finnegans Wake is one man's attempt to fit everything into one book. I literally mean everything. Now, that might seem crazy and well, it sort of is, but I wouldn't knock a man for trying. More power to him I'd say. And even crazier is that fact that it's a reasonably successful attempt. Every war ever fought, every great political figure, every significant historical event, all of science and mathematics, every important philosophical argument, every religion, every known language and much, much, much more. And not forgetting every anal joke the English language can hold. It's the most inexhaustible book ever written. If the earth was destroyed tomorrow and you wanted to rebuild it the same as it was, Finnegans Wake would be your instruction manual. It took one of the greatest brains that ever drew breath seventeen years to write it. Every single sentence can be justified in several ways. Every sentence makes sense on at least seven or eight levels at the same time. Too right you didn't understand it.
    It's likely that nobody will ever fully understand everything in it, but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying. In fact if you try, you can understand a hell of a lot of it, just like anything else. If you want to read a book and understand it completely the first time through then you're in luck, that's how most books are written. But leave Finnegans Wake alone, it never did you any harm, you did it all yourself.
    What's the point in skimming through one of the most complex books ever written? So you can say you read it and it was shit? Congratulations. I had a friend tell me the Mona Lisa was a piece of shit because there was so many other tourists there he didn't get to see it properly. If you want his phone number I can hook you up.
    So to recap, no, let's not fuck this book, fuck you buddy.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I enjoy any opportunity for dialogue/disagreement on any of my opinions.

      I have to say that I strongly disagree with most of your points here, obviously based on the content of my review. I can't tell if you read it all the way through or not (my review, that is, not the book), because I do pretty clearly acknowledge my feeling that the book is a sort of masterpiece.

      However, a work that excludes the overwhelming majority of readers cannot pretend to the kind of universality that you are ascribing to Finnegans Wake. A truly universal work would have meaning for any reader, even if that reader couldn't understand all of the different layers of meaning.

      And speaking of layers, I'd challenge you on your claim of every sentence making sense on seven or eight levels. If you could demonstrate that with any one of the sentences quoted in my review, I'd consider myself proven wrong about everything.

    2. I don't see how Finnegans Wake excludes the majority of readers. It is an impossible read if you want to read it like a 'normal' book (I'm not sure anyone could be that clever), but it is not a normal book, it's much more than that. It's more like a puzzle. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. That's the beauty of it, it's the reason I love this book so much. If I handed you a sudoku puzzle and didn't explain what it was, it would seem like a random assortment of numbers. If you looked at it long enough, you might see the patterns. If you looked at it longer still, you might even solve it. You may have no interest and not get past the first stage, but that to me says that you exclude yourself from the puzzle, the puzzle doesn't exclude you. I think anyone who can read English can get something from FW, provided that they go looking for it. FW has turned me on to many other books, myths, legends, philosophies, histories, poems, peoples, you name it. He doesn't expect me to know all of these already but if I want to know more it's up to me to find out.

      At first FW seems like gobbledegook but the more you reread every line the more sense it makes. It is the most rewarding book I know of and I know I'll be reading it for the rest of my life, uncovering new things every time, just like everybody else who gets into FW. That's the way it was designed. I don't claim to be an expert on FW but from the many, many hours I've spent reading it I've found more in it than any other book I've ever read. It is vast.

      I admire your challenge! I regret I couldn't prove the vast complexity of those particular lines. You have to understand that it takes a lot of time to read this book and this particular page isn't one I've spent much time on, so I can't give you much information on it. I could certainly explain some elements of those lines but I wouldn't do it much justice, and I'd fail to meet the terms of your challenge, unless I spent many hours studying them before replying to you. I guess I could do that but in fairness, you're a random person on the internet, I honestly couldn't justify doing all that work just to prove myself to someone I don't even know! There are other pages I've spent more time on that I could talk about more satisfactorily, none more so than the first page which I've poured through for many, many happy hours. If I was to take even just the first two sentences of the book and show you what I've found out, I'm confident that I could prove the existence of the meanings and the layers that I've claimed. If you could see some of the things that are in those lines you would yourself be easily able to understand how every sentence in the book is packed full of different meanings and levels. And in the interest of turning someone on to FW, where better to start than the beginning? Would that satisfy your terms?