Jospeh Campbell’s brilliant classic, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (a wonderful tome of literary criticism that glossed Joyce’s Sphinx-like final novel through the lens of mythology) had been out of print and impossible to find for years–until it was resissued two years ago as part of Campbell’s collected works. Being a fairly active Joyce fan, I asked my local library to order a copy. Three months later, they emailed to say it was in. That was yesterday, and I picked it up this morning.
Reading this seminal text reminds me of a silly but useful introduction to the Wake that I wrote a few years ago, and which was published in the Fall 2005 Common Review. The idea was to structure my favorite trivia about it and advice for enjoying it around a parody of the first verse of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (see the bold headings in the piece below). To tickle your logophilic fancy, here it is:
Genesis, Geniuses, and Guinnesses
ONE OF THE AMERICAN masters of horror fiction, H. P. Lovecraft, once wrote about a book so alien to our finite minds that reading it for too long would drive you insane. He was referring to the mythical Necronomicon, but the description applies just as well to James Joyce’s 1939 opus, Finnegans Wake.
That weirdness makes Joyce’s last work inordinately unpopular. Finnegans Wake is rarely acknowledged, and even then often reluctantly, like Grandma’s collection of potato chips that resemble St. Jude. In the Modern Library’s infamous list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century, Joyce’s two earlier novels, Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ranked first and third, respectively. However, Finnegans Wake came in at seventy-seven. A companion list created by online voting also included Ulysses and Portrait, but left the Wake off entirely.
What gives? It’s not as if Joyce’s earlier works were easy to read. (Ulysses was only the second English work of fiction to use the word honorificabilitudinitatibus—Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost was the first). But readers with some small measure of perseverance could make sense of them. At least both Ulysses and Portrait had some semblance of order, with a plot, settings, and characters…Finnegans Wake has none of these.
Instead, the reader gets more than 600 pages of pure puns, allusions, and whimsical riddles, whose loose association comes in the context of a dream (Joyce called the Wake the “night” companion to Ulysses’s “day”). In this dream, we find human archetypes interacting amid references to every tidbit of trivia you can imagine, with scraps of dozens of languages thrown into the mix just for fun.
In its most famous feature, Finnegans Wake abruptly ends in the middle of a sentence that continues on the first page, creating a circular story with no true beginning or end. Joyce couldn’t have told us any more clearly to leave our linear expectations at the door.
So perhaps readers don’t like the Wake because they don’t understand it. My advice: give up! Comprehension is a counterproductively quixotic quest, to say the least. That’s because there is not much to understand. It’s best enjoyed simply as a swiftly flowing river of wordplay, and at this level of ecstatically abstract linguistic celebration, Finnegans Wake is the richest work in the English language. You’d be selling yourself short by ignoring it altogether, so here’s some advice for getting something out of it.
Load up on puns. Master wordsmith Joyce had the time of his life creating his portmanteau “slanguage,” often sounding more like lyrics from Nirvana or REM than English literature. Some favorite puns: a decidedly negative Yuletide wish (“End a muddy crushmess!”) and a snide insinuation about the morals of a Mormon prophet (“bringem young!”). Truly, Joyce had a well-rounded inventory of words, or a “volupkabulary.” Keep your eyes open for thousands of these.
Bring your friends.Want to one-up Oprah’s bold book club choice of Faulknerian fables? Round up your overeducated cohorts and throw the snarkiest literary discussion the world has ever seen. Take turns reading out loud, and brainstorm every interpretation and association you can. Nobody can find all the possible meanings of the text, much less notice its infinite references, on their own.
It’s one to muse. Don’t plan on reading this book cover to cover. That kind of compulsive guilt is simply not worth the cost. You might as well pick a random number between 3 and 628 and start on that page. Don’t plan on going quickly, either. Like Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, reading too much at once will only burn you out. It might take years before you read it all. You might never read it all. Just pick at it and find things you like, then let them marinate in your mind’s stew for a while. Joyce’s juices are exotic; let them simmer.
And use a pen. Before long, your copy of the Wake should look like some endlessly recycled poetry text in a college bookstore—hopelessly underlined, highlighted, dog-eared, sticky-noted, coffee-stained, and annotated in your own swanky style. It will help your self-esteem to keep track of parts you liked and things you understood. Throw in some doodles and the Wake is yours.
Read far more lore. Each page of the Wake has enough winks at both serious academia and pop culture to make Ken Jennings dizzy. Make a game of it: see how many references to music you can find on 359.31–360.16. Don’t worry that you don’t know as much as he did. Joyce’s notes for the Wake spanned forty-seven notebooks, and he spent seventeen years writing it. The most accessible guide to Joyce’s myriad references is William York Tindall’s A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake. Get it.
Be self-absorbed. The Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone “shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” Finnegans Wake does the same. That’s the plus side of a book so dense that it can only be understood as a subjective riddle. Whatever your memories and experiences, you’ll find tons of the Wake directed squarely at you. Say you come across the word “guenneses.” The former Sunday School student’s memories suggest the biblical book of Genesis. The linguistic puzzler sees geniuses. And the drinker sees Guinness. All three are correct—if only because Joyce was all three of those people.
If you haven’t seen your cup of tea yet, don’t fret; Joyce has something on the menu for you. That’s why the Wake is so long. Because it plumbs the murky depths of the common human soul, Finnegans Wake is every bit as universal as any play by the Bard (or, as Joyce refers to him, “Shapesphere”). As Joyce explicitly puts it in the text, “Here Comes Everybody.” (This is also why there’s no apostrophe in Finnegans–Joyce wanted to emphasize plurality, not personal possession.)
And now you read aloud the words. Joyce’s prose was his best poetry. Like all good nonsense nursery rhymes, it’s even more fun to hear than to see. (Like warming up before a workout, you might try reciting Lewis Carroll’s “Jaberwocky” before tackling the Wake.) You will be surprised at how well it rolls off your tongue, like Irish honey. Listen to Joyce read some of it himself at http://www.finneganswake.org/joycereading.htm.
One more thing is worth noting to help you enjoy the ride. Joyce suggests a sort of setting for all of this monumental literary effort: the “chaosmos.” Get it? Chaos + cosmos = the whole crazy universe. What could be more welcoming? So relax, let go of your rational hang-ups, and get ready for a no-hassles guided tour of humanity’s collective id. Only in the Wake can you dream like this.