Tuesday, June 25, 2013

I guess this is someday: coming to the end of Finnegans Wake

So Anna Porter is awake and checking on her three children: Kevin, Jerry and Isobel. Mr Porter, whose first name may be Humphrey but is probably not, has shut off the lamp and gone back to sleep. Kevin, Jerry and Isobel are quite young yet, so the stories of Shem as a writer and Shaun as—I think—a postman and Izzy as a nun are all dreams of the future that Mr Porter is having, I guess. Kevin and Jerry might be teens; it’s hard to say how old anyone is here, but as I approach the final chapter of Finnegans Wake, a lot of the action is being explained; a lot of sense is pouring into the narrative. I blame it on Anna Livia Plurabelle Porter having left the bedroom where her husband sulks after his middle-of-the-night sexual advances were rebuffed by Anna. I pause here to note that the marriage bed has been an important character all the way through the novel, the four great bedposts taking on the forms of four men who descend again and again on Mr Porter to accuse and judge him of all manner of crimes. This bed, with these four bedposts personified variously as drunks in a bar, judges on the bench and the authors of the four gospels, gives Finnegans Wake a kind of kinship with the Odyssey, where the marriage bed, the architectural and emotional center of Ulysses' and Penelope's house, plays such an important role. I find this interesting. It's tempting to call Finnegans Wake a version of Ulysses, too.

Finnegans Wake is said to be a book that people worship from afar, that nobody actually reads, and of course that’s hogwash because if you spend just a little bit of time you can find all sorts of commentary written by all sorts of people who’ve read the book. It is not “readable” in the traditional sense, no, but it is a performance anyone can witness. I admit that the middle 200 pages were some heavy going, much like the middle pages of Moby-Dick; and like Moby-Dick, the last third of Finnegans Wake is a richer experience for being prefaced by all of that heavy going middle. Aha, I say, oho I get it I see I do see. So this is, I suppose, a book which presents some considerable difficulty for the reader and might not welcome a reader who puts his expectations ahead of the experience of the novel. Finnegans Wake is not what you think it is, but then again no good book is what you think it is. Every great work of literature surprises us and confounds our expectations and refuses in large measure to be what we want it to be; it insists on being itself instead—it insists on being something bigger than we are, bigger than the writer is, something that doesn’t give a fig how we feel about it. Finnegans Wake, kids, is a great book. I have about 60 pages left to read. I don’t know how anything I read after this will seem remotely interesting.

And yet, I have an enormous TBR pile, with new additions made weekly, much more quickly than I can read the damned things. This weekend I picked up a copy of Anzia Yezierska’s 1925 novel The Breadgivers, mostly because D.G. Myers has raved about the book. I should read it soon, so that if I don’t like the novel, I will have time to complain to Myers before he dies. I have a feeling that when he is very sick indeed, Myers will begin to recommend excruciatingly awful books, as a joke. Perhaps he’s already doing that. Have you seen his blog lately?

I’m also reading James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Boswell does his best to paint Johnson as a creative genius, but the eccentric crankiness of Samuel keeps bleeding through between the lines. It’s a fun book, this Life. It was an impulse buy, but also one of those books I always figured I’d read someday. I guess this is someday.

Last night I picked up a recent novel by a young American writer and read the first twenty or so pages. I don’t think I’ll read this book, and I won’t say what book it is, but I will say that like a lot of American first novels, this is a collection of striving-for-over-the-top “edgy” images that scream “outsider” and not much else. Yes, it sucks to be bright and sensitive and alienated. I have read this book too many times by too many debut authors. Writers so often think they’ve discovered pain--a pain about which no one has ever written--and they are somehow misled into thinking that by writing about this personal pain, they are breaking new creative ground. But “life sucks” is not particularly interesting as a theme. Life does suck in a lot of ways, sure, but writing a novel with a first-person narrator who declares “MY life sucks, pay fucking attention while I list all my most embarrassing moments for you” is not, my children, doing something new. Please find something else about which to write. My own first novel, written some 20 or so years ago, was just this sort of thing, full of earnest pain and anger and a big theme involving religion and (of course) a delusional first-person narrator, but I had the good sense to drown that book while it was young and bury its corpse in the back yard, beneath the roses.

10 comments:

  1. "Please find something else about which to write."

    But they keep publishing them! Endlessly. And the memoirs too. I suppose it keeps them out of the bars?

    Joyce. I'll take your word for it. I used to feel sad about all the books I knew I'd never get to, and I just don't anymore Defeat or grace, not sure.

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  2. So, at the end of the day you would recommend Finnegan. Only Joyce could turn a bedpost into a character and pull it off. There are so many wonderful books I have yet to read and I'm beginning to think I'm running out of time. It makes me sad. Just discovered James Salter. "As a writer, you aren’t anybody until you become somebody." And I wonder how many more authors like him are out there, yet unknown to me.

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  3. Abigail, I keep seeing these books (or the same book with a different title) year after year, and I wonder who's reading them. I suppose that there's an unending 20-something readership for misery memoirs, a phase through which bright young readers pass. Possibly I was one of those readers 30-some years ago, but I don't remember it. Maybe I've just reached the "contempt for youth" stage in life. Or maybe there's a difference between breast-beating and real tragedy and I have no patience for breast-beating. Hard to say. I don't want to be a curmudgeon, though. Wait: yes, I do. Adding graphic sex, violence and drug use to Catcher in the Rye does not make your book better and more meaningful than Catcher in the Rye. And Catcher has already been written, young writers of today.

    Yvonne, I find myself reading all these allegedly dull and difficult classics of the Western canon like Moby-Dick and Don Quixote and Finnegans Wake and I think they're great books, really marvelous things. I can't say I enjoyed Finnegans Wake the way I enjoyed Alice in Wonderland or The Man Who Would Be King or To The Lighthouse, but it's been a really rewarding experience. I tell myself that I'll read it again someday, but that's probably a lie.

    The list of books I want to read before I kick off the mortal coil changes all the time. When I was a kid, I wanted to read all 85 "Doc Savage" novels and everything Isaac Asimov wrote. Now, not so much. A decade or so ago I thought I'd be reading Antonia Byatt as long as she was writing new novels, but I haven't looked at her last couple and I probably won't ever. I have no idea what I'll read next year. This year, I know I want to get back to those Chekhov stories (I have three unread volumes!) and more Shakespeare. I have a Marly Youmans novel on the shelf, and an Anne Gallagher novel I really must get back to, etc. I forgot what I was saying. Blah blah blah.

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  4. I have Moby Dick on my kindle and started reading it but only made it to page 10 or so and started reading something else. Of course, I tell myself I'll go back to it, and maybe I will. There sure is a lot of garbage being published today, the great American "dumbing down". Or am I just a snob?

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  5. I'm curious as to which book you speak of in the end of your post here. I recently read a book I hated with every fiber of my being. I was mystified, baffled, confused not to as how it was published (not that difficult for crap to get published these days), but as to why it is such a popular novel and why people kept calling it literary. There was nothing literary (even in the vaguest of terms, since we've never nailed down a true definition of that word) about it.

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  6. Yvonne, books like Moby-Dick take time to get used to the voice of the author, I think. I always allow a chapter or two as a period of adjustment/negotiation for any book I read. I don't know if books are being dumbed down; maybe most novels have always been pretty bad, and it's only noticeable when you're living in the time when those particular bad novels are being written. Aristotle complained about how bad most of the plays were in his day.

    Michelle, I can't say what book that was, but I confess that I'm baffled by the success of a lot of stuff these days. How so many people managed to finish Freedom puzzles me. That was a bad, high-profile book.

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  7. So has FW infiltrated your mind and made a difference in the prose? Maybe that's why you're less interested in the plot of the current book and more in other elements...

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  8. I've been getting less interested in plot for some time. I don't really know what Mr Joyce has done to me; all I can say is that I've felt a strong sense of disquiet about reading and writing since I finished Finnegans Wake and I don't know what to do about that disquiet. I look at the projects I'm working on and I think that I could do other things with them, but I don't know what that other should be. My friend Davin would tell me that this way of being lost is a good thing, that I have the opportunity to discover new territory now. I donno. FW is a remarkable book, a magic book.

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  9. On Boswell and Johnson, once through with the life or as an alternative, I suggest Boswell's journal of a tour of the Hebrides.,it presents a more human Johnson and parts are really hilarious.

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  10. I've heard that the Tour is pretty fantastic, and it's on my list. Some day. I'm enjoying Mr Johnson, though. He's delightfully uncomfortable with himself.

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