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.


Books I Never Finished

I'm currently writing the Finnegans Wake review, and it got me thinking (you'll see why soonish) of the various books that I've never finished, and since I've been meaning to write a post about them for a while, I figured that there was no time like the present to do so.

Some people can pick up books, get bored by them, put them down, and never think about them again, and do this frequently.

I am not one of those people. Once I've started a book, it's as if there's no alternative in my mind but to read it all the way through, without skipping a word. It helps that I actually have incredibly poor taste, so I tend to enjoy most things while I'm reading them, especially if it's a book that I've picked for myself and not, say, something that I'm reading from a ... List.

There have been a couple of books that I didn't finish because they were so overdue at the library that I had to return them before they were finished. I'll get back to these books eventually (Excalibur and The Pilgrim's Progress, the latter of which I encountered in Little Women and have wanted to read ever since, but failed on two attempts).

But there are three other books that I made conscious decisions to stop reading, and won't be going back to.  In a sketchy order from least to most recently left unread, they are:
I really don't have any memory of how I found this book in the first place, because I probably tried reading it around 2002 or 2003, and it was published in 1996 and I sincerely doubt that there was much call for it in the small city I lived in at the time.  In spite of its awesome title, which I'm sure was the main thing that caught my eye, it was just a jumble of weird mid-90s internet counterculture fantasy.  I had a good internet friend at the time who I complained to enough about it that he finally suggested I just stop reading it.  Which hadn't occurred to me, but I did end up taking his advice.  I'm not sure now whether it was actually terrible, over my head, or simply irrelevant, but I don't care at all.
Fairies.  Oh God, fairies.  I had a not-all-that-brief fascination with the fae that TO BE HONEST I don't think I've ever truly gotten over.  This book of short stories had elements that were really awesome: Warner's fairies live in a really well-defined world.  The problem, though, was that the stories she was writing about them simply weren't very interesting to teenage me.  (And speaking of fairies, here is a kind of fun video about the Cottingley fairies, which has some, uhh, interesting comments on it.)
My sister ended up trapped in one of those "we'll send you a book every month and you'll probably pay us for all of them because you'll be too lazy to send them back" schemes a few years ago, resulting in her having this book lying around, and me picking it up because the title was cool.  I found the book overwhelming, though, full of made up words (it's part of the enormous Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy series) and not particularly engaging.

How about you?  Can you easily drop books once you've started them?  Or, if you're like me, what are some of the few that you couldn't finish?

Board Members: Daniel J. Boorstin

As promised at some point in the past, here is the first board member bio type thing. This will by no means be a comprehensive summary of any of these people's lives, although I will focus on a few broad descriptors so that I can summarize them at the end of all this.

Name: Daniel J. Boorstin

Born: October 1, 1914
Died: February 28, 2004
Country of Origin/Main Residence: United States (son of Russian immigrants)

Sex: Male
Sexual Orientation: Hetero
Married?: Yes: Ruth Frankel, 1941
Children?: Yes: 3
Education: Law
Religion: Jewish

Literary Awards: Pulitzer Prize for The Americans: The Democratic Experience

Daniel J. Boorstin's life begins with a very interesting story, involving his lawyer father's participation in the defense of a Jewish man accused of murdering a young girl in Georgia. From there things get a bit less exciting, though.

Boorstin grew up in Oklahoma after his family basically fled Georgia, and went to school at Harvard, Oxford (as a Rhodes scholar), and finally Yale Law School, i.e. he was a lawyer by training. He was a professor at the University of Chicago for 25 years and the US Congress librarian, despite not being an actual librarian, for 12 years.

He wrote over 20 books, many of which seem to have very rah rah American subject matter, although some of the others, dealing with celebrity, world history, and the influence of technology on history, look like they might be interesting. After all, a bunch of them were apparently bestsellers.

Besides being a patriot, Boorstin flirted with was a member of the US communist party in the 1930s--probably during his early twenties, in other words. He then abruptly became a conservative. It's unclear whether he was racist or just insistently colour blind.

He and his wife/editor, Ruth, had three children.

Sources: this obituary and of course Wikipedia