From the very first page of Finnegans Wake, I knew I was in for a rough ride. Beginning in the middle of a sentence that will eventually be completed by the other fragment closing the book, the Wake plunges into a dense mire of language that collides various tongues into an idioglossia of puns and references so obscure as to be their own words, a sort of twin-speak warping of Dublin's geographical makeup that makes the esoteric written atlas provided by Ulysses seem as easy to read as a star map.
It's heady stuff, a gnarled (if flowing) run of portmanteaux and wordplay that seems to delight in instantly alienating the audience. The first chapter (and the next three) read like the Oxen of the Sun chapter of Ulysses, that book's most challenging, obscurant part. With fewer resources handy for the first-time reader than I had for Ulysses, Finnegans Wake proved an instant struggle. It took hours, whole hours, to read even one chapter.
With a couple of pushes in the right direction by a few resources, I even managed to get something of a grasp of the "narrative": starting with a retelling of the comic Irish song about Tim Finnegan, a hod carrier who falls from a ladder to his death, only to be revived by whiskey, Finnegans Wake instantly complicates and expands upon the ballad to become the story of Ireland, maybe the world itself.
The "protagonist"—if he can be called such—who amusingly takes Finnegan's place when he resurrects but is urged to stay dead by his mourners, is tavern owner Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, who will go by many names in the shifting dreamscape of the book. This being a book of dreams, HCE is at once vaguely aware of his humble reality yet a vast force in the subjective, fantastical realm of sleep, not merely a god but seemingly all gods. HCE is then shown to be running in a local election, only to be undone by a scandal of some vaguely sexual nature that, true to the shifting textures of this dream book, is never clearly stated and transfigures constantly until some minor sexual misconduct has become distorted through gossip until, by the fourth chapter, HCE is on trial for various misdeeds foisted upon him by hearsay and conjecture.
Now this was more familiar ground. Those familiar with some of Joyce's preoccupations might see some of ol' Parnell in HCE's treatment: Parnell was certainly aiming higher than this modest (literal) everyman, but both were undone by sexual shenanigans and the court of public opinion. HCE's indecency somewhat recalls the Nausicaa episode of Ulysses, in which Leo Bloom and a lame girl named Gerty MacDowell engage in an implicitly stated explicit act that suggest both parties have participated in arousing the other and getting off on it. It's unclear what HCE does in Phoenix Park, and one won't get a clearer view from his gossiping pub patrons, who distort the already thin story until HCE is turning into different people, even different species, and doing all sorts of mischief. The more they speculate, the more HCE's non-native Irish heritage, stressed by puns that play on Norwegian and Dutch words, appears to come to the fore, eerily reminiscent of the race-baiting fury that informed the Cyclops episode of Ulysses. Joyce has swapped Bloom's Jewishness for some vague nationality, but both men's everyman qualities serve to bring out the hatred and rejection in empty racial nationalism. I can't point to any specific passages that made this clear, but something in the book's tone changed when the 12 patrons ( later, the trial jury) seem to turn to xenophobic distrust of HCE; it makes the absurdism of the man's metamorphoses and expanding list of ills nightmarish, not airy and silly.
Chapters 2-4 all deal with this scandal and its fallout, and Joyce constantly recapitulates his ridiculous tangents in recaps that I'd swear represented the author taking pity on the reader and acknowledging that, already, we could do with a bit of catching up. At least, I'd more readily believe that if these summaries were any more legible, but I still laughed at Joyce's nominal sympathy with the audience. Or maybe this is just the incidental byproduct of basis his work on Giambattista Vico's Scienza Nuova and the theory of human history as a repeating cycle of stages. In that sense, the occasional recap is merely another, smaller reset in the larger cycle of the Wake. I still need to look into Vico more thoroughly, but being told the basics about his views is one of those key clues that clarifies so much of the larger framework of what Joyce is doing. There will always been unfathomable minutiae in Joyce's writing, but a tip like Vico's ricorsos or the Oxen in the Sun episode being about the gestation of English itself can make the hardest material at least framable.
By the fourth chapter, in which HCE, or some form of him, is put on trial, I was hooked. By devoting pretty much all of chapter three to restating and expanding upon (and restating again) chapter two, Joyce gave me enough space to settle in and get as comfortable as I am liable to get with the Wake. And I have to say, it made a difference: while I was so overwhelmed at first that only a few of the puns broke through my confusion and frustration to make me chuckle, chapter four made me laugh out loud. Be it a quick note about a witness being suspected of being a "plain clothes priest" to lewd puns, obscure and allusive enough to slip by censors but unmissable in intent, I was absolutely rolling at times. It was here that I truly surrendered to the book, despite getting Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson's A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake in between chapters three and four. Even as I read that supplement, I prioritized the flow of the ridiculousness over what was being said. I started to really get a hold of the book, even if there are still whole pages that smack dully against my face like a thrown fish.
That's not to say I had to wait that long to find something of merit, however. Even on this first page, where I already questioned the wisdom of even opening the damn book, I found something that provided a sort of early revelation of the way to process Joyce's nigh-impenetrable work. The second paragraph mentions "the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County's giorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time. As a Georgia (giorgios?) boy, I'm familiar with the Oconee River, which snakes through Laurens County and our very own Dublin, GA. Skeleton Key makes reference of this connection across the pond but also alerted me to the fact that there is a Laurens County in Ireland; I did not, happily, need to be told that the country has a Dublin too.
Nevertheless, even if Joyce intended to stay within Ireland for his introduction—likely, given how the rest of the first few paragraphs contains several Dublin locales—this brief snippet kept me going despite initial doubts and fears. As much as the puns made in other languages and the various historical in-jokes, this connection to something with which I was completely familiar let me in on the true nature of the Wake: it has a plot, to be sure, and one that begins to become clearer after getting a basic grasp of what's going on, but the true delight is in its universality. One of the names Joyce uses for HCE is "Here Comes Everybody," which stresses the breadth of HCE's connections to figures past, present, historical and mythological. If the book exhibits that same range, then it must include something of the whole world. Ergo, Joyce floods the early chapters with puns in other languages, so why not include a winking reference to Dublin's New World copy?
This made me realize: Finnegans Wake is not a book to be "figured out," to be sussed from the author's intent, or the critic's. It's a strange thing: I've never read a book so obviously the work and intent of an author, that so flagrantly violates the concept of the death of the author (even 30 years before Barthes wrote his essay). Yet I've also never come across a book that so openly, encouragingly belongs to everyone. There truly is something here for everyone, even if that necessitates it not being any one discernible thing. That didn't make it any easier to read, but it did make the thing impossible to put down, even at its densest and most taxing. I decided to start writing these update posts to will myself to continue with the Wake, but finishing chapter four helped me to slip into the book with as much enthusiasm (and acceptance of ignorance) as I did with Ulysses. Who knows if it will continue to improve or, in a metatextual ricorso, I'll slip back into hissing barbarism. For the moment, though, all is well, and I can't wait to keep exploring Joyce's mad, hypersexualized, guilt-ridden dream.