The Good: The auditory/lyrical nature of the work
The Bad: Length and nonsensical nature, No plot, no defined characters
The Basics: Pick Finnegan's Wake up, read the opening line, set the book back on the shelf, walk away. You'll have the best this book has to offer there!
Whenever one encounters a giant of literature in length and depth, the first thing one ought to take into account when reading a review of such a work is "Did the reviewer actually read the whole book?" My answer for Finnegan's Wake and my response is: I lost six months of my life reading it, but I finished the thing! I want to resurrect James Joyce only to smack him around for a while and ask him what he was thinking.
Usually after an introductory paragraph like that, I begin a summary of the novel's plot, including mentioning the significant characters of the book. Herein you might grasp the crux of my difficulty with the novel. Not only does Finnegan's Wake lack plot (or if it has it, it is so shrouded in density that it's impossible to find without a Ph.D), but it has no definable, memorable, recognizable characters. That's not to say there aren't different voices, but often who is speaking in the novel is impossible to tell. The characters are not named nor do they do anything.
One expert opinion on Finnegan's Wake is that it is the history of a single day where, from a starting point, it explores a single day of the Earth and every individual on the planet. By that interpretation, I have to say, the book feels like it is long enough that I can't think Joyce missed anyone. It WAS written to be a cyclical thing, running from the last line back into the first, but that is not incentive to keep reading the book over and over again.
It's a tough nut to crack because it does not have a plot. This is a novel not with a difficult to describe plot, but a book where nothing happens per se. Beyond that, it's no one doing the nothings, so we don't have any characters to latch onto. It's a book without plot or character and that makes it a book about language.
I admire poetics, in fact I think that if there's a college reading Finnegan's Wake aloud, you ought to go and listen in for about an hour. If it's presented properly, it will sound good. In fact, Finnegan's Wake is a masterful study in putting words and sounds together. The long winding lines of this poem do not necessarily say anything, but they sound good. I mean that literally, by the way; often Joyce creates his own words and pops them into the middle of a sentence where their meaning is not clear. But the meaning, I'm told, is not important, the sound is. And the novel sounds fine.
Unfortunately, that's all it will do. If you're not shaking your head and asking "What's going on?" odds are you're stoned out of your mind. Don't do drugs, they're bad. That said, trying to decipher this novel (which has easily the most poetic opening line of literature ever) will drive you to drink or do something stronger.
It's infuriating that this is considered one of the great works of literature in that - outside sheer length - there is nothing impressive about it. It says nothing and the simple joy of language and sound wears off so quickly. It's not literature, it's an experiment. And as I've been known to say, whenever you do an experiment you have to be open to the possibility that it will fail. Finnegan's Wake fails because it does nothing other than make noise.
Ultimately, it might be frustrating for such a long book to be reviewed with so few words, but - unlike Joyce's experiment with sound and language - I find I can make my point with these few simple words.
I was hugely disappointed when I finished this that I stuck it out through the whole thing. I advise you to not make the same mistake.
For other classic works of Modernist literature, please check out my reviews of:
The Sound And The Fury - William Faulkner
Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
The Day Of The Locust - Nathanael West
For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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