David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: finnegans wake (page 1 of 5)

Xorandor by Christine Brooke-Rose

Xorandor (1986) is a novel by Christine Brooke-Rose (1923-). Jip and Zab are preteen twins who speak a weird, unfamiliar slang and meet up with a talking rock that turns out to be a foreign lifeform from Mars, which they dub Xorandor. They communicate with it using a programming language somewhat akin to BASIC, and they discover it can consume radiation particles. This then spins into a tale of spies, nuclear disarmament, and a disorganized offspring of Xorandor who gets scrambled, decides it is Lady Macbeth, and demands that it and its brethren be given endless radiation or it will create a critical mass and destroy a good part of England. Jip and Zab work with Xorandor to stop its mad offspring, speaking to it in that same programming language, and they also discover more about Xorandor’s real provenance and nature.

My criticisms of the book ultimately fall away in the face of its mere existence. Boy is it a strange one. Thomas M. Disch reviewed it when it first came out, comparing it to A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker, clearly on the grounds of its distended language. But Brooke-Rose’s use of code snippets (in a BASIC-like language of her own design) as well as a certain lack of fluency with the concepts of computer science makes it both less and more than those other two books.

It is more in that neither Burgess nor Hoban attempted to graft a formal symbolic language onto English, preferring instead to deform English into a new, imagined human language. It is less in that the graft does not take: Brooke-Rose cannot create the hybrid she attempts, because she treats the symbolic language as human language when it is is not. To explain the nature of this failure is to understand the multilayered nature of metaphor and analogy in natural language.

Before critiquing, though, let me praise Brooke-Rose’s achievement. She engaged with the syntax and semantics of what I gather to be a genuinely foreign domain, and she managed to utilize them logically and cogently in a novel, at a level that I’ve only seen in Vernor Vinge (who, besides having background in the relevant domains, is a far more conventional and unimaginative writer). She did this well into her career, and she did this in the mid-80s, well before any such concepts had penetrated into the mainstream. Compared to the contemporaneous Tron, Xorandor is an algorithms textbook.

I caught a few slip-ups where she uses terminology in an invalid way or attempts to draw an analogy based on a misunderstanding of a particular formal concept, but really only a handful, which is really rather stunning for someone coming to the material for the first time. So my aesthetic criticism is balanced by my immense admiration for Brooke-Rose’s adventurousness, curiosity, and diligence.

The only hint of previous background I’ve found is in Frank Kermode’s piece on Brooke-Rose, where he says she served at Bletchley Park in World War II, alongside the likes of Alan Turing. Yet there is little here that has to do with the theoretical aspects of computer science. Brooke-Rose is interested in computer languages as language, not as a practical tool. Yet the problem lies in the inseparability of these two aspects.

Consider this representative piece of code from the book:


The vast majority of the code, in fact, ends up being DEC and REM statements, which allow Brooke-Rose to use English primarily in the code. These statements are made to seem more computer-like by mutilating English syntax, but they are no closer to actual computer language than English. She has taken the syntax of computer language and some of its semantics, but overlaid it with slightly altered natural language semantics. Within a REM or a DEC statement, anything goes.

Brooke-Rose makes steps toward accommodating formal language semantics within the DEC and REM statements, such as pointing out the problems of indefinite antecedents, but they are small and tentative, and these issues, which would be at the heart of an effort to deal with the difference between logical and natural language, fall by the wayside in favor of moves that belong purely in the realm of natural language.

The problem is that Brooke-Rose has not lived the language she is appropriating. This is as great a problem with a programming language as it is with a human language, although the nature of the problem is different. By utilizing programming language to serve the purposes of a human language, she neglects the very nature of the language, and so the result is akin to what would happen if one were to write poetry in an unknown foreign language with only a translating dictionary as a guide. It is the confusion of the (partial) definition of a word with the knowledge of its many uses and place in the language. Programming language is simpler than natural language, but by ignoring the greater part of the purposes the language can serve, Brooke-Rose’s code is enfeebled.

The problem manifests itself in Jip and Zab’s slang as well. Here is a brief bit of dialog:

Zab, do we have to reconstruct every conv?

That’s what storytellers do Jip, or else they invent them. But we can’t, this is real.

Floating-point real or fixed-point real?


This rings false because this is not a joke programmers would make. (There are many others like it in the book.) The mere dual definition of “real” as both meaning “actual” as well as “a number belonging to a continuum” does not make it suitable grounds for a pun. Even puns, which exist on the surface level of language, require some conceptual apparatus to link their two meanings. By making the linkages purely on the lexical level, Brooke-Rose betrays a lack of conceptual knowledge of the language she is adopting.

To recast this exchange with German instead of computer language:

I have committed a mortal sin.

Are you sure it wasn’t merely a mortal bedeutung?


Punning on Frege’s Sinn/Bedeutung distinction in this context serves no purpose. We can have some fun this way (I originally tried to do it with kind, kinder, and art), but it does not lend any greater meaning to the matter at hand or illuminate the connections between English and German. If anything, it trivializes them.

I have criticized science and engineering people for adopting too literal and too concrete metaphorical models of emotion and humanity. Rod Humble’s The Marriage was a model example, in my opinion. But this is a critique in the other direction, of the fact that Brooke-Rose has adopted the syntax and semantics of a domain without understanding their practical usage. That practical layer, which I hesitate to call sub-linguistic because it is still linguistic, is one that writers too often ignore. Beneath the shuffling of imagery and semantic ambiguity often lies a linguo-conceptual level as arid and stale as a formulaic plot.

The grammatical, rhetorical, lexical material of computer science have been employed without much of their actual content. Very little of the code apparatus serves much purpose except to give shape to the narrative that would otherwise be done with the usual natural language devices. Because Brooke-Rose chose a computer language rather than a natural language, the gap between the two languages is huge and starkly reveals what more subtle shifts do not. It is not always so clear what gets left out when interweaving two languages.

An analogical strategy of linguistic substitution is one of the core skills of any writer. Xorandor very clearly shows what such strategies easily miss or take for granted: the underlying, mutable conceptual matter, made to seem irrelevant by the manipulation of surface-level syntax and semantics, but in fact distinctively present. This matter is not plot, though it can take the form of plot; it is the subcutaneous ideological and structural stuff of writing and life that language captures inexactly, imprecisely and in multifold ways, but which is nonetheless there. It is present in the technical uses of computer language that Brooke-Rose did not make use of. This matter lies not in syntax or semantics, but in pragmatics and superstructure. And that is what is precisely missing, almost totally, in Brooke-Rose’s use of computer code. The deficiency of the book is astonishingly illuminating.

In this sense, Brooke-Rose is firmly ensconced in her time, in the post-structuralist milieu in which language slippages occur purely at the surface level of syntax and atomic signification. This anti-conceptualist dogma of deconstruction has been tremendously detrimental to the creative spirits of many writers, who too often forsake all thoughts of a deeper conceptual structure underpinning languages in favor of an emaciated, localized play on the simplest of word associations, as prescribed by the primitive associative models of Derrida and Lacan and the rigid structuralist networks of Barthes. Puns often come to dictate analogies rather than analogies dictating metaphors.

Brett Bourbon mischaracterized this deeper conceptual realm as the realm of nonsense, talking about deformations of language. But these deformations of language, exemplified by those of Finnegans Wake, are not excursions into nonsense, but attempts to pull and reshape our conceptual language in unfamiliar directions.

Most literature, of course, settles for much less than this. It is not necessarily a writer’s responsibility to operate on this linguo-conceptual (linguo-pragmatic?) level, but I believe the mark of truly substantial literature (as opposed to merely great writing) is indeed a work’s ability to wreak havoc to existing linguo-conceptual structures.

The challenge in addressing these structures and grasping them even partly is immense, and falling back on simplifications is tempting and sometimes sufficient to create a decent work of art. But only decent. The human tendency to reduce and simplify into models is unavoidable, but complacency with them, an unwilingness to accept their provisionality, is an unforgivable offense against our rational and creative powers. Every writer of “experimental” prose should reflect on this book and wonder if their amalgamation of novel lexical and semantic overlaps is only serving to reiterate unoriginal macrostructures.

Yet Brooke-Rose is smart enough to recognize this, and her essay collection Stories, Theories and Things (1991) shows her to be a keen and precise critic who draws on structuralist, deconstructionist, and speech act theory without becoming obfuscatory and usually not too straitjacketed. The essays on gender and writing, in particular, are some of the best I’ve read on the subject in ages.

And here she speaks, I think, exactly to the problem I describe above, the narrowness of the conceptual apparatus so often at work in writing:

Now knowledge has long been unfashionable in fiction. If I may make a personal digression here, this is particularly true of women writers, who are assumed to write only of their personal situations and problems, and I have often been blamed for parading my knowledge, although I have never seen this being regarded as a flaw in male writers; on the contrary. Nevertheless (end of personal digression), even as praise, a show of knowledge is usually regarded as irrelevant: Mr X shows an immense amount of knowledge of a, b, c, and the critic passes to theme, plot, characters and sometimes style, often in that order. What has been valued in this sociological and psychoanalytical century is personal experience and the successful expression of it. In the last resort a novel can be limited to this, can come straight out of heart and head, with at best a craftsmanly ability to organize it well, and write well.

What she also implies, which is something worth spelling out, is that the most egregious exponents of this anti-conceptual anti-knowledge tendency have not been novelists, but literary theorists, who too often not only sought little knowledge beyond their narrowly-focused reading, but then built even more constraining systems around those impoverished areas!

I will not analyze her criticism in detail here; I am only interested in how it serves to illuminate further the noble failure of Xorandor, as well as the less noble failures of countless other books. If Xorandor does not free itself from its theoretical shackles, its immersion into foreign territory remains a notable effort to escape the orbit around the endless deferral of signification.

That is to say: when we are captivated by the shiny surface of language, when pyrotechnics and puns and prestidigitation of words comes to substitute for attention to the far deeper realms of the conceptual and practical use of even the most ordinary language, then we have come to treat language as a solipsistic activity that turns us inward and away from the world. And so such linguistic activity becomes a way of avoiding life.

If we are content to refine and nourish only the epidermis of language, we let the innards rot.

The Linear and the Circular in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake

James Joyce made the superimposition of conflicting patterns one of the central principles of both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. (You can see it in Portrait as well, but nowhere near to the extent.) While he drew on Dante’s schematic cosmology as a model for organizing huge and diverse amounts of material, he drew from Shakespeare the notion that uncertainty, indeterminacy, and outright contradiction could give immense strength and depth to the effect of a work on readers.

Unlike Shakespeare, Joyce could not hide his life from his readers. People were now far more interested in the life of the artist, and documentation was too easily had. But rather than trying to mask his intentions, he could overload a work with as many conflicting and indeterminate moments, motifs, and significations as possible. Schemata that came to mind after the basic construction of a work, like the infamous Ulysses schema that Joyce gave to Stuart Gilbert that has held too much sway ever since, were just additional bricks to add to the consternating edifice. (Note the somewhat variable Linati schema.)

This gave rise to the peculiar modern criticism that Joyce does not say anything. Harry Levin was both perceptive and naive in 1939 when he reviewed Finnegans Wake and said:

Among the acknowledged masters of English—and there can be no further delay in acknowledging that Joyce is among the greatest—there is no one with so much to express and so little to say. Whatever is capable of being sounded or enunciated will find its echo in Joyce’s writing; he alludes glibly and impartially to such concerns as left-wing literature (116), Whitman and democracy (263), the ‘braintrust’ (529), ‘Nazi’ (375), ‘Gestapo’ (332), ‘Soviet’ (414), and the sickle and the hammer (341). The sounds are heard, the names are called, the phrases are invoked; but the rest is silence. The detachment which can look upon the conflicts of civilization as so many competing vocables is wonderful and terrifying. Sooner or later, however, it gives a prejudiced reader the uncanny sensation of trying to carry on a conversation with an omniscient parrot.

Harry Levin, “On First Looking into Finnegans Wake” (1939)

The rest is anything but silence. Joyce was aware of the implications of all of these terms (and was hardly impartial about them). He created breathing space not by failing to elaborate on these terms, but by invoking as many associations with them as possible, fully aware of their contradictions.

This sort of technique agglomerates into daunting complexity, but I don’t think the method is meant to complex, nor did Joyce intend it to be. It doesn’t need to be complex for striking effect. One very central opposition/superimposition is the idea of linear and circular motion. Joyce conflates the two very frequently in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. The very basis of Ulysses, a single day, is a canonical example: at the end of the day, one cyclically returns to where one started, while having progressed linearly to a new day. Likewise, Odysseus returned home on a circular journey while experiencing the linear movement of plot. Very simple.

But Joyce also applies the device repeatedly at a lower level. (I hesitate to use the dread word fractal, but it’s appropriate in this case.) The novel is constructed in a symmetrical form: 3 chapters, then 12 chapters, then 3 chapters. Yet the mapping of the styles individual chapters in the first and final sections is not done in reflection:

  • Chapters 1 and 16 (Telemachus and Eumaeus): third-person narration.
  • Chapters 2 and 17 (Nestor and Ithaca): interrogative dialogue.
  • Chapters 3 and 18 (Proteus and Penelope): first-person interior monologue.

And yet chapter 1 was given the sobriquet “Telemachus” rather than chapter 3, which would make more sense given this parallel, as Stephen is Telemachus and Molly is Penelope. But it would wreck the larger symmetry of having a book called Ulysses that begins with Telemachus and ends with Penelope. Joyce had no problem with breaking patterns for the sake of establishing other patterns.

Likewise, the middle 12 chapters divide into sets of 3, with every third chapter (6, 9, 12, 15–Hades, Scylla and Charybdis, Cyclops, Circe) having a Big Plot Event, conflict, or climax relative to the remaining, somewhat more subdued chapters, even as the style and material of the chapters is continually progressing into new and generally more abstruse territory. The “squaring of the circle” theme that preoccupies Bloom is also a reflection of how the linear is coextant with the cyclical, but not identical. There are many, many other instances.

And I think that this fundamental overlay of linear and cyclical remains, more or less unaltered, in Finnegans Wake. I believe it to have been a fundamental component of Joyce’s metaphysics and cosmology, and I believe that Vico was primarily a way for Joyce to obtain a central cyclical structure for history. Richard Ellmann quotes Joyce as saying, when asked if he believed in Vico’s New Science, “I don’t believe in any science, but my imagination grows when I read Vico as it doesn’t when I read Freud or Jung.” The content of Vico’s cycle, while useful, was less crucial than its form.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's Diagram of Finnegans Wake (1946)

But even though Joyce gave Finnegans Wake a clear cyclical structure by having its first sentence complete its final sentence, the linearity is there everywhere as well, from Jaun’s evolution, journey, and quest narrative in the third part to the very process of children growing up and defeating/killing/usurping their father. The one-way journey from birth to death, from child to adult, is neither trumped nor negated by a cyclical view of history. (Perhaps it’s only in infinity that endless similar recurrences of a process can result in occasional identical instantiations of that cycle; again, think of the squaring of the circle, which would only be possible in infinity.) If the cyclical aspect seems overly pronounced at times, it’s only because the linear aspect is so often the default.

The timescale of the book works similarly. Two of the timescales in the Wake is from 6pm to 6am and sunset to sunrise. Sunset and sunrise are mirror reflections in time and in space, but the sun’s one-way motion across the sky accounts for it rising in the east and setting in the west, it having made a reverse journey to return to its place of origin while maintaining forward motion, by virtue of the extra dimension. The half-revolution of the Earth covered by this time period covers exactly half the journey, 180 degrees, from one linear extreme to the opposite, before reversal toward the point of origin begins.

Joyce also used the Egyptian Book of the Dead as a foundational text for Finnegans Wake, and Egyptian mythology has a near-perfect analogy for this process. In Egyptian mythology, Ra the sun god dies at the end of each day in the west and makes a journey through the underworld each night to return to the east, where he is reborn. (He makes the journeys on boats, no less, allowing for Joyce to fit in the female aspect as the water.) This fits uncannily with Joyce’s ever-reborn masculine, eternal feminine, and the identification of the day-night cycle with that of life and death, rise and fall, civilization and breakdown.

The motion motifs pile up to immense complication, since Joyce works this superimposition in at many levels. One combination of circular and linear motion then becomes part of a larger series of circular and linear motions which can reflect, mirror, or reiterate the original combination; and so on and so forth. Joyce makes much hay of reflection, mirrors, symmetry and asymmetry, twins and opposites, and so on.

Appreciating this complexity does not require seeing all these superimpositions or even most of them. Joyce knew this would be impossible for a reader or even a group of readers, so he chose an approach that would demonstrate this near-infinity of superimpositions through a fundamentally simple method that could organically grow into immense complexity. This creates the secular sense of awe that Joyce inspires in me. I see it as Joyce’s ultimate expression of the attempt to comprehend the metaphysical infinite with the finite resources of the mind and portray it in art.

Richard Ellmann, in his biography of Joyce, quotes a passage of Benedetto Croce, which Joyce had certainly read, that is quite apt:

Croce’s restatement of Vico, ‘Man creates the human world, creates it by transforming himself into the facts of society: by thinking it he re-creates his own creations traverses over again the paths he has already traversed, reconstructs the whole ideally, and thus knows it with full and true knowledge,’ is echoed in Stephen’s remark in Ulysses, ‘What went forth to the ends of the world to traverse not itself. God, the sun, Shakespeare, a commercial traveller, having itself traversed in reality itself, becomes that self…. Self which it itself was ineluctably preconditioned to become. Ecco!

James Joyce: The Difference Between Portrait and Ulysses and Finnegans Wake

Well, one difference, as explained by A. Walton Litz in the pretty good book The Art of James Joyce:
A process of selectivity harmonizes with his early notion of the ‘epiphany’, which assumes that it is possible to reveal a whole area of experience through a single gesture or phrase. In shaping the Portrait Joyce sought continually to create ‘epiphanies’, and to define Stephen’s attitudes by a stringent process of exclusion; later in his career he attempted to define by a process of inclusion. The earlier method implies that there is a significance, a ‘quidditas’, residing in each thing, and that the task of the artist is to discover this significance by a process of distillation. In the later method it is the artist who creates the significance through language. Thus in the Portrait a single gesture may reveal a character’s essential nature; but in Finnegans Wake Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker’s nature is established by multiple relationships with all the fallen heroes of history and legend.

Litz doesn’t force this dichotomy too much, which is good, but there is something to it. The single-moment emphasis in the early work gets contextualized and put into perspective in Ulysses before evaporating completely in Finnegans Wake, so that every moment becomes co-extant with every other moment. (And this very process, this consubstantiality, is a major theme in Ulysses.)

Finnegans Wake: A Short Guide to Readable Books about James Joyce’s Unreadable Book

A certain article which I won’t mention reminded me that I should update my reader’s guide to reader’s guides to Finnegans Wake, since there are a lot of people out there who’d like to read the thing but don’t have the opportunity to take a class in it and don’t know quite where to begin. So I am updating my list of guides to the Wake and sorting it into a few categories.

Most of these books, especially those in the first two sections, are extremely approachable and written in friendly, affable language, certainly moreso than the average monograph. Since Finnegans Wake doesn’t exactly pull in huge amounts of fans, there’s not much exclusionary rhetoric to keep out dilettantes.


Getting Familiar (Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy)

The Books at the Wake, James S. Atherton.

Ultimately, I think this may be the best place to start, and Atherton’s excellent book was recently reissued in reasonably inexpensive paperback. Finnegans Wake is about the history of the world and the history of every bit of writing in it, and those two things are made to be one. But the Wake does favor certain writers by referencing them very frequently: not just Vico, who provided the historical structure that supposedly partly guides the book’s organization, but Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, Blake, etc. These give very key pointers to some of the things Joyce is driving at. Atherton goes author by author, which conveniently gives an overview of the continuities of the book (one of the more difficult things to grasp on encountering it) while not being beholden to one particular interpretation of it.

Joyce-again’s Wake, Bernard Benstock.

A more thorough and comprehensive overview than Atherton, but also more partial. It is invaluable for the structural outline Benstock gives, which is useful in carving up the monolithic chapters of the Wake into more manageable chunks. It also contains a fantastic analysis of the very important but elusive Prankquean fable located on pages 21-23 of the Wake. The rest of the book both summarizes previous scholarship and elaborates on it in a rather freewheeling fashion. There’s plenty of good stuff, but Benstock sometimes is too exclusive about his readings, and I read them with more salt than I did Hart or Atherton. On Issy, the topic I researched, I disagree with him. A very good introduction, but also one that requires more skepticism.

The Art of James Joyce, A. Walton Litz.

An excellent and short (100 pages) book on Joyce’s working methods on Ulysses and the Wake and how they could possibly feed into the structure and meaning of the works themselves. Litz is admirably humble and cautious about drawing any conclusions, but the emphasis on the construction work makes the whole book seem more approachable and at least begins to give some explanation as to why the Wake is written the way that it is. As Litz says, this doesn’t necessarily say anything about the work itself, but one path into the book is through the process of construction, and at least as Litz presents it, it’s a very engaging one.


Further Immersion

The Sigla of Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh.

McHugh is one of the most intense Wake scholars, and in The Finnegans Wake Experience he describes moving to Ireland to better understand the book. This slim volume describes, with much reference to Joyce’s notebooks, how the many personages of the book combine into sigla, a dozen or so symbols around which Joyce constructed the book. (For example, HCE in all his various forms is a wicket-shaped “M”, and ALP in hers is a triangle.) Joyce’s sigla changed as he wrote the book, and there’s room for interpretation, but McHugh, like no other analyst, gives the impression of truly grasping the whole damn thing, even as it streams between his fingers. Only my inexpert opinion, but McHugh seemed to be most in tune with Finnegans Wake.

Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake, Clive Hart.

As the title suggests, Hart’s book contrasts with McHugh’s in tracing linguistic, spatial, temporal, and referential structure through the book rather than focusing on character archetypes or narrative. As such, Hart attempts to describe the macro-structure of the Wake with a minimum of interpretation–which invariably turns out to be quite a lot. Hart is in a lot of contentious territory, but his knowledge is solid and his pace careful. I think of Hart’s book as consciously open-ended: even where I find his interpretations uncertain, they are always provocative and spur even more future questions. This quality, however, makes the book more daunting to a newcomer, who will have less context for the majestic castles in the air that Hart depicts.

A Guide Through Finnegans Wake, Edmund Epstein.

Epstein was my teacher and guide through the Wake, so I am biased. Epstein provides a very structured and very detailed walk through the Wake page through page. He takes an different approach to the book from McHugh and Hart, preferring to focus on the fundamentally human drama at the heart of it, and so he ignores the sigla and treats the man-woman dyad HCE and ALP and their brethren as corporeal, albeit manifold, human beings. In this he is closer to Joseph Campbell (yes, that one) and Henry Morton Robinson, who wrote possibly the first book-length treatment of the Wake with A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake in the 1940s, but Epstein has the benefit of 60 years more research and perspective, and so Campbell and Robinson’s many mistaken guesses are not a problem here. Epstein points out tons of obscure allusions as well, and he is especially good on music and some of the pure wordplay. (I believe he conducted Gilbert and Sullivan at one point or other.) The book is contentious: Epstein has a very definite view of the book’s layout and mechanism, and I believe there is far more ambiguity in it than he does. Grain of salt, etc.

A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake, William York Tindall.

Tindall was an extremely bright and knowledgeable Wake scholar, but I have to rate this as one of the weaker guides. Like Blamires’ Bloomsday Book, it explicates the Wake page by page. Unfortunately, what’s left out is far greater than what remains, and Tindall often makes controversial interpretations without appearing to do so. It’s less of a problem in Blamires because the narrative of Ulysses is reasonably uncontroversial, but since narrative in Finnegans Wake emerges from linguistic confusion and contradiction, Tindall’s approach makes the Wake appear smaller than it is. Provocative and worthwhile, but also worth avoiding until you know enough to spot some of his assumptions.


Specialization and Esoterica (Difficult Difficult Lemon Difficult)

Annotations to Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh.

Absolutely indispensible for serious reading, but insanely frustrating to a newcomer. For those who haven’t seen it, this is an extensive gloss that maps page-by-page on to the original text with extremely concise, sometimes cryptic notes. (You really have to see it to get the effect.) On first glance the Annotations are just as obscure as the Wake itself, but once I started catching recurrences of certain allusions, it becomes impressive how they match up with particular subjects and characters in the Wake. (For example, Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll references occur absurdly often in any section associated with the daughter Issy.) You will want this after having a  working grasp of the general shape of the book, but before that it will merely cause nightmares.

Third Census of Finnegans Wake, Adaline Glasheen.

Glasheen started reading the Wake while tending to a newborn and needing something to occupy moments during and in between feedings. Evidently possessed of awesome powers of concentration, she also seems to have inexhaustible enthusiasm. Her book is nothing more and nothing less than a catalogue of all the proper names in the Wake that Glasheen could identify. (It also includes another structural summary with, as is to be expected, some contentious interpretations. I give the edge to Benstock’s summary, though both are very useful.) Glasheen’s list of references is exhausting, if not exhaustive, and effectively serves as an alternate organizational tool for digesting the Wake. It poses thousands of questions along the lines of, “Why did Joyce connect person X with person Y?” Glasheen is also completely unaffected, as indicated by entries like “I don’t know who this is.”

Joyce’s Book of the Dark, John Bishop.

An extremely daunting book. While schooled in the above traditions of Wake scholarship, Bishop goes in another direction entirely, focusing on Joyce’s linguistic methods as theme, particularly as they relate to sleep, the body, and the five senses. Bishop is fond of making extremely short citations and combining them from all over the Wake in close succession, which emphasizes Joyce’s sea of language while downplaying any potential linear continuity. Bishop also analyzes two key mythologies that influenced the Wake, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Vico’s New Science, but his interpretations are highly heterodox. Consequently, Bishop has the effect of making Finnegans Wake seem even weirder than the other books make it out to be. The book is one of the most learned studies around and takes the Wake in unique interpretive directions, but it may leave you, as it implies, in the dark.

Finding a Replacement for the Soul, Brett Bourbon.

While this book is not exclusively concerned with the Wake, it invokes Finnegans Wake as a central example for Bourbon’s non-propositional view of fiction. Bourbon, I believe, was a student of Bishop and locates Bishop’s nighttime uncertainty in the processes of language itself, taking Bishop’s argument even farther. Not an exegesis of Finnegans Wake, but a reflection on what the Wake says (or shows) about readers and reading.


What’s Wrong with this Picture?

From the introduction to Steven Moore’s The Novel:

In the early 1990s I was an editor at Dalkey Archive Press, which specialized in what one bookseller disparaged as “egghead” fiction. The most difficult and demanding novel we published was probably Julián Ríos’s Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel, sort of Spain’s answer to Finnegans Wake. It received fine reviews across the country, including a spirited one from Michael Dirda in the Washington Post, but since the New York Times Book Review adamantly ignored it (despite Carlos Fuentes’s pleading) and a promised review in the Voice Literary Supplement fell through, I decided to try to reach that hip demographic with an ad in the VLS captioned “Are You Reader Enough for Larva?” The mock-macho appeal was intended to attract those who like a literary challenge, as well as those who are open to new artistic experiences. Since I’m convinced those who malign innovative fiction do so more for personal, temperamental reasons than for the aesthetic ones they publicly espouse, here’s a test you can take to see if you’re the right kind of reader for writerly texts:

1. You are an average Joe or Jane and have moved to a big city offering lots of culture. One night you’re strolling past an art-house theater and the manager is out front giving away tickets to fill the house (the money’s in the concessions). Having nothing better to do, you take a seat and soon learn the movie is in a foreign language and has no subtitles. Do you:

(a) automatically get up and leave, knowing you won’t completely understand it?

(b) stay and get what you can out of it: appreciate the cinematography, the background music, the way an actress holds her purse, the possibility of a sex scene, etc.?

2. A neighbor gives you a free ticket to the ballet in gratitude for babysitting her cat last week. You go and discover it’s not a simple story ballet like Gisele or Swan Lake but an evening of abstract dance. Do you:

(a) give your ticket away because you don’t “understand” modern dance?

(b) stay and enjoy the show: the unusual choreography, the beautiful bodies poured into bodystockings, the weird music, etc.?

3. Speaking of weird music: you go to a club hoping for some good ol’ rock ’n’ roll, but instead of a long-haired band there’s a bald DJ spinning some techno-ambient concoction unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. Do you:

(a) pull an Ashbery by crying, “I don’t understand this at all” and burst into tears?

(b) let the music wash over you, let yourself find the pulse, maybe even ask that purple-haired girl in the striped tights to dance?

4. You’ve had enough of the big city and decide to return home. Waiting for a bus, you pick up a discarded copy of Larva and, because you have a long bus-ride ahead of you, begin reading. You quickly discover it is not a conventional novel. Do you:

(a) discard it and stare out the window all the way back home?


From an old interview with Steve Albini:

I can dig the Ramones and the Birthday Party and the Stooges and SPK and Minor Threat and Whitehouse and Link Wray and Chrome and Pere Ubu and Rudimentary Peni and Four Skins and Throbbing Gristle and Skrewdriver and the Ex and Minimal Man and US Chaos and Gang Green and Tommi Stumpff and the Swans and Bad Brains all at the same time, and if you can’t then fuck you.

« Older posts

© 2019 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑