Thursday, September 2, 2004
Call this a book review.
Call it a cry for help.
Call it a search for similar life forms.
Read it if you like. Heaven knows there are worse things to waste your eyes reading. Take, for example, my one-book summer reading list and destroyer of me as the person you once knew: I was inspired to read James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake" by a character in a Tom Robbins' novel who carries a copy with him all over the world and never makes it past Page 1.
This summer, as the ladies of leisure were sunning their pedicures on the mahogany cap rail of our sailboat, I was contemplating the most ridiculous riddle ever written.
They sipped mimosas. I looked out to sea, considering the story of a brick carrier from Dublin named Tim Finnegan.
He loved. He was loved. And he was daydreaming about that love as he climbed a steep ladder with a load of bricks on his back. He was a little drunk, of course, and lost his footing. Finnegan falls all humpty dumpty onto a pile of his own bricks. His fall takes many pages and, on the way down, Joyce references the fall of man in all its forms through all its generations since the story of Adam and Eve.
According to the classic Irish drinking song that inspired this fiasco of a book, Finnegan lands in a pile of his bricks, and all the king's horses and all the kings men, etc. At his wake, people dance and sing around his body until a splash of whiskey hits it and brings it back to life. It's everything the revelers can do to get Finnegan to lay back down on the slab and remain dead.
They say: You can't come back Finnegan. You've been replaced. There's no room for you anymore in this world, except in our stories. And don't you worry. We'll say great things about you. You have a legacy. You can die in peace.
Finnegan begins again. It's a metaphor for the endless cycle of one generation being replaced by the next.
The best way to read "Finnegan's Wake" is to start with the last page. It gives the description of a river winding to the sea. The last sentence ends halfway through, but picks up on the first page of the book completing the big spiral that wraps over again through the 600-plus pages.
The narrator is asleep, and all events happen in a dream landscape, void of rules of "goahead plot," "wideawake language" or "cutanddry grammar."
Tip. Tip. Tip.
That word starts appearing in the middle of paragraphs, connected to nothing around it: Tip. Tip. Tip. For pages, it inserts itself.
As the narrator sleeps, a wind is blowing outside of his bedroom. Tip. Tip. Tip. It's the sound of a branch hitting his window -- a symbol for the bony finger of death always in the background.
Unless you are a genius with a full grasp of the history of the world's civilizations and their corresponding mythologies and languages with an infinite imagination for the possible cutting and pasting of all those things into nonsense words and sentences, you will read the book with a pile of other books on hand.
(Here's a test: Does this word from paragraph 3 mean anything to you? "Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthuntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!"
If you did not answer: "Of course, that's the voice of God calling out as Finnegan falls," then you also should buy "Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake" by Joseph Campbell, cross referenced with "Annotations to Finnegan's Wake" by Roland McHugh.
By Page 10, you will have what I call "The James Joyce Realization." (i.e. "I am scum. I know nothing.")
"Finnegan's Wake" took Joyce 18 years to write. It took me two months to reach Page 48. By then, my brain had unraveled and was dangling like a string before my eyes. I closed the book to retain my human face.
After cleansing my palette with a few paperbacks, I would like to find a group of people who want to take a run at the next 550 pages. Call it a book club for fools.
If you're interested, you know where to find me. Until then: "Thank you, James. May I have another."