Sunday, January 25, 2009

The downward spiral

6:23 a.m. I’m awake, and not at all pleased with myself. Wish I would have promised to eat a lot of waffles today instead of reading Finnegans Wake.

John Bishop’s introduction begins, “There is no agreement as to what Finnegans Wake is about, whether or not it is ‘about’ anything, or even whether it is, in any ordinary sense of the word, ‘readable.’”

Imagine being the publisher who receives a query letter from James Joyce’s hypothetical literary agent. What would it say? “Hey, I’ve got this book. I’m not sure what it’s about, or if it’s even readable, but it’s by the guy who wrote Ulysses. We can discuss movie rights later.”

6: 34 a.m. Sir Tristam, violer d’amores, fr’ over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war … What the hell is an isthmus?

6:41 a.m. Some of these coinages must have occurred when James Joyce passed out at his typewriter.

6:45 a.m. Caligulate is an incredible verb. If Tricia ever flips out, runs for empress and appoints her horse as a senator, I’m going to tell her to quit caligulating.

6:46 a.m. Great, now I lost my spot and need to start over.

6:54 a.m. Agog and Magog and the round of them agrog.

6:59 a.m. Beginning to suspect Finnegans Wake is the greatest practical joke ever conceived.

7:02 a.m. The jinnies is jillous agincourting all the lipoleums. And the lipoleums is gonn boycottoncrezy onto the one Willingdone … I’m not certain, but I think this might be pornographic.

7:19 a.m. These paxsealing buttonholes have quadrilled across the centuries and whiff now whafft to us, fresh and made-of-all-smiles as on the eve of Killallwho politic ditto, we can trade places get lifted in the staircases …

Fleppety! Flippety! Fleapow!

7: 25 a.m. First cup of coffee. If anyone ever tells you how good Finnegans Wake is, punch them in the throat.

7:28 a.m. Thank you, James Joyce, for supplying a word I so sorely needed. Henceforth, I will refer to all of Dave Jones’s columns as meandertales.

7:34 a.m. Did he just say “golden youths that wanted gelding?” That doesn’t make any sense. I mean, not in the same way that the rest of this doesn’t make sense; but what golden youth wants to be gelded?

Honestly, I’m just glad to have understood five consecutive words.

7:41 a.m. “And they all drank free” would be a wonderful way to end any story. It could replace “and they all lived happily ever after” as the standard closing line.

By the by, I’m on page 22. At this rate, it will take about 35 hours to finish Finnegans Wake.

7:45 a.m. With lipth she lithpeth to him all to time of thuch on thuch and thow on thow.

You know, that actually made sense. Maybe something’s kicking in.

7:47 a.m. Nevermind.

7:59 a.m. Coworker previously suggested reading the difficult passages aloud. Throat is now sore after reading aloud for 90 minutes.

8:04 a.m. When they make the inevitable Finnegans Wake movie, I bet Christopher Walken plays Humphrey Chimpden.

8:09 a.m. “A baser meaning has been read into these characters the literal sense of which decency can safely scarcely hint.”

This must be a metatextual comment. It is too coherent to be otherwise.

8: 13 a.m. If this reporting thing doesn’t work out, I’m becoming a lustsleuth. Doesn’t that sound cool, lustsleuth? I think that’s what Kenneth Starr should have been called.

8:45 a.m. Those many warts, those slummy patches, halfsinster wrinkles, shimmy shimmy ya shimmy yeh shimmy yay …

I can understand how some people become obsessed with this book, because it is not completely gibberish. There is a comprehensible nucleus. Of course, it’s smothered underneath a triple serving of style-over-substance. I can safely say that I will glean nothing more than some cool coinages from my one-day read-a-thon.

8:56 a.m. The next correction we print in The News-Herald should read, “Thus the unfacts, did we possess them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.”

9:33 a.m. Lost some time because my wife made Frenchtoaststicks. LuvFrenchtoaststicks. Seckoned Cup of Cawfee.

A board of experts from the Modern Library ranked this book as the 77th greatest novel since 1900. This happened around the time when people felt compelled to make Top 100 lists for everything. (Top 100 movies, Top 100 songs, Top 100 things that make you go hmmmm…) Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim” was ranked Number 78. I have read “Kim.” I enjoyed “Kim.” Though I am admittedly not even a sixth through Finnegans Wake, I feel comfortable saying that this is not better than “Kim.”

“Kim” had a plot. “Kim” had characters. “Kim” did not require a ouija board and a decoder ring to translate. “Finnegans Wake” certainly has poetry. It has language and style. What it does not have, however, is a reason for me to continue.

This verges on the emperor’s new clothes.

9:48 a.m. I’m telling my wife that we should name our first son Posidonius O’Fluctuary Lea.

10: 13 a.m. “Bladyughfoulmoecklenburgwhurawhorascortastrumpapapornanennykocksapastippatappatupperstrippuckputtanach, eh?”

OK. I give. Call it a third-round knockout. I made it to page 90 (of 628) before being struck a fatal blow.

Perhaps it is my inability to translate multilingual puns. Perhaps it is the amount of time it took me to decipher the portmanteaus. But I have failed, inexcusably failed. It took less than four hours and two cups of cawfee for me to surrender.

This is easily the most self-indulgent thing I have ever read. However, it is also a work of intelligence. I could be glib and say it is book of random words smashing together, like an omnilingual Jabberwocky forced into a blender, but it isn’t. Joyce is clearly trying to make, or obfuscate, a point. However, it is not compelling enough of a point for me to want to decipher it.

A book—actually, any story—is a symbiotic creature. It needs a teller and a listener. They are in it together. The storyteller must give something so the audience will follow. Likewise, the listener must be willing to sacrifice something if the story is of merit.

But Joyce asks too much. He wants readers to decode his cobbled language of the night, so they can hear a story with few decipherable characters or plot points. I respect, and even appreciate, some of the poetry here. (“The viability of vicinals if invisible is invincible.”) But the language does not overcome the detriments of this text.

Consequently, Joyce is alone.

--Jason Lea,

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Blogger Kyle said...

Please do a live blog of you smashing your thumb with a hammer next this saturday. It sounds like it might be a more enjoyable experience for you...

January 27, 2009 at 10:29 AM 

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