Michael Chabon mis/under-/or/stand-/reading Finnegans Wake

“…suited his liquidity to a tee: cp. Winnipeg Lake, ripple 585, Vico Press edition.”
-Bend Sinister 

Maybe this was sadder because of the unique build-up. When I saw a recent New York Review of Books newsletter-email with a link at the bottom: Michael Chabon: “Why I Hate Dreams,” I sadly but without surprise noted that in the piece, Chabon only references Carroll and some movies, not the master dream-work, Finnegans Wake. What a shocking omission, I thought. Then, a day later, I received their latest issue in the mail…

ImageThe sight that raised yours truly’s spirits high.

Imagine my excitement — “why I hate dreams” wasn’t the main course, in other words (it’s apparently a riff off a particularly pungent line in the main essay), but an appetizer! Just imagining Chabon’s uniquely dreamy voice dancing in the shadow of the Wake made me super-excited enough to shout and scare my girlfriend when I saw the mail.

As a brief aside, let me comment on the sad state of Finnegans Wake. We believe that if the entire front cover of the New York Review of Books said FINN-EGANS-WAKE broken into one column for 4 straight months, it would not be enough to make up for that great book’s small readership. If the The New York Times were to announce “FINNEGANS WAKE” across the top of A1, perhaps I would buy a copy. A fella might say “I think that Joyce is overrated by pretentious academics,” but vastly underrated feels more accurate to me w.r.t. FW. Ninety percent of Joyce scholarship stops dead at Ulysses (personal experience I’ll always treasure, a current Joyce/Irish Lit grad student at NYU scoffing at the notion of reading FW). The greatest single work of Western literature goes mostly unread. Which is too bad, because I’ve read the Wake and it brought me alive like no other book has and I believe that incredible eternal vivacity at its core is accessible to anyone who seeks it.


But Chabon did not get Finnegans Wake (“What to Make of Finnegans Wake?”)He read it, god bless him, and survived to tell the tale, but his essay is primarily a reader’s memoir about his experiences with Joyce and his year-long trek through FW. When he finally writes about the book itself and not his peripheral experiences and impressions of it, here’s how he breaks down for a presumptive reader, his 8-year-old son, us, just what it’s all about:

(a) Hell if I know, kid.

(b) Nothing.

(c) Recurrence, figured through the heavy use of recurrent initials (HCE, ALP), recurrent digits (1132, 566), recurrent  imagery (giants, towers, heaps and mounds), recurrent characters (a Russian general who gets shot in the ass, Swift’s Vanessa), recurrent historical figures (Parnell, Napoleon, Saint Patrick), recurrent  dyads (Adam and Eve, Mutt and Jeff), trinities (the Trinity), quartets (the Evangelists) and duodectets (jurors, apostles), recurrent snatches and snippets of balladry, recurrent garbled quotations from Swift, the Duke of Wellington, Mark Twain, etc. Such recurrence is presumed to be an attribute of dreams, which thus (another, more dubious presumption, here derived from a fairly obscure Renaissance historiographer named Giambattista Vico, partial eponym of that commodius vicus that had stumped me back in Pittsburgh) becomes a metaphor for the whole of recurrent human history, from Adam and Eve to the martyred Parnell, from the Big Bang, a theory which Joyce seems vaguely to have intuited, to television, whose advent, in a novel published the same year that RCA introduced its first practical system at the New York World’s Fair, Joyce seems, nearsightedly, to have predicted.

(d) Everything, ever.

(e) Its author’s own super-cleverness, the daedalian prison in which Joyce starved his genius, having forgotten that, since a labyrinth is as hard to penetrate as to escape, most of Asterion’s intended meals must have failed to make it to the jaws and waiting belly at the labyrinth’s center.*

(f) Rebellion, the style of the book constituting a colonial uprising in words, its sentences a series of blows against the empire of English, saboteur sentences that foul the reservoirs, cut the power lines, leave open the latches, throw infinite monkey wrenches into the works of the master language, which it was Joyce the Irishman’s bitter and ironic triumph to have mastered. Vandalism, revenge, the unhinged glee of resurrection.

(g) The reliable readiness of critics, doctoral candidates, and know-it-alls to enshrine difficulty for its own sake, to rise to the bait of erudite obscurity that Joyce laid for us in this, the greatest liteary prank ever played (outside of revealed religion). By this accounting for Finnegans Wake – one of whose recurring figures is a deceptive tailor – the clothes have no emperor, and it is the few, not the many, who fall for the deception. As evidence for this claim are adduced numerous eyewitness accounts of Joyce’s going through the text, as with a pink semantic eraser, to efface, misspell, confound, delete, and repurpose the words of sentences that thereunto had been relatively (and thus excessively) clear and comprehensible.

(h) Joyce’s helplessness in the face of language, his glossolalia, the untrammeled riverine flow of words and wordplay in which James Joyce plunged, and swam, and drowned; the compulsive neologism that echoes, typifies, and indeed in a clinical sense accounts, genetically, for the schizophrenia – at times characterized by uncontrollable bursts of surprising and beautiful utterances – that afflicted his daughter, Lucia, and led to her eventual institutionalization.

(i) Incest, real or imagined, between father and daughter, between brother and sister; the memory of a sexual transgression (or of the wish to commit it) that the book repeatedly buries and exhumes, accuses and tries, denies and confesses, with a willing and helpless compulsion. Indeed at times the book seems to want us to understand that (not unlike Ada, whose narrator attempts to devise an entire alternate universe – a dreamland – in which incest can be an act of perfection and not of shame) its narrative has been constructed as kind of monstrous apology or rationalization for that crime or that desire.

Pretty thin stuff. Chabon goes on to write that the book is “disappointing,” at least to anyone who read Ulysses, and it’s about “failing” because it is a failure, as Joyce must have known. Also, the book does not resemble dreams in real life, i.e. no one has dreams where the names of 9,000 rivers are mentioned (I.8), which disbelief in the “realism” of FW is presented as a sort of the crowning jewel of the argument that the book is not good.

Can one even argue that someone else’s interpretation of so-and-so’s work is a “mis” or “miss” or “poor” “interpretation” or “reading”? Well I’m not sure I can or would, but what objectively exists is “under-reading,” i.e.: War & Peace: a bunch of Russians and Napoleon.  Lolita: pedophilia. Catcher in the Rye: whiny prep-school boy. Finnegans Wake: hell, nothing, recurrence, everything, super-cleverness, rebellion, difficulty, Joyce’s helplessness, incest. – Michael Chabon, 2012.


It’s an oversimplification that can only come from laziness. Chabon is listing a drastic minority of the elements in the novel and then proposing that his reader accept they are all that is to be gleaned from the Wake. The bitter frustration of someone who gave up early is evident all over the essay. (That he then proceeded to write about hating dreams should have been a red flag, I guess). “I’ve done this tremendous work for you people, here are the fruits of my labor,” he says, while in this instance he resembles nothing more than a hack explorer who ventures into the rain forest and returns with gewgaws & gimcracks from the airport. The essay, from the perspective of information it actually provides a reader about Finnegans Wake, is a cluster-fuck. It’s a disservice to his readers and a failure in his obligations as a writer.

To briefly address particularly clear examples of Chabon’s “under-reading” in his point-by-point breakdown:

-(C): Exercise: state that “recurrence” of patterns is a key theme in the novel, then omit to mention the things and people and principles that are recurring, such as tensions between natural life and human structure; forms of struggle and love between infinite mothers, fathers sons and daughters. Answer: I seriously hope you guys don’t do this.
Yes, during part of book III, every line for several pages includes or ends with a repetition of “one and one and three and two”  but the numerical pattern is like a background chant as abcd/mamalujo/NSEW interrogate Shaun about many, many things — one of which  is whether he truly loves truth (III.3) (Incidentally, did you know that ceremonies similar to this interrogation sequence are found both in the Egyptian Book of the Dead rituals and the ancient Druidic Irish Teamhur Feis Rites of Tara (according to George Cinclair Gibson), two completely divergent pre-Christian cultures? But I digress.) Seeing the recurring numbers doesn’t mean you stop reading the story! Likely the most frustrating part of Chabon’s essay.

-(G): “The bait of erudite obscurity that Joyce laid for us in this, the greatest literary prank ever played (outside of ‘revealed religion’)…the clothes have no emperor, and it is the few, not the many, who fall for the deception.” Oh, my god! Why would a dead man prank you? It’s proof of the particular insanity and bewilderment that FW can provoke that a Pulitzer prize-winning author would declare with bold confidence that a former human’s ashes have a steady chuckle on because a bunch of know-it-alls fell for their prank. Ah, sweet revenge! This is a dismissive brush-off I’ve heard many times in relation to FW, and nothing puzzles me more. The greatest writer since Shakespeare spent two decades making a riddle with no solution to trick critics, doctoral candidates and know-it-alls into…. writing about it? Reading it? Wasting their precious time on this planet? I don’t feel puzzled or pranked at all by the book, I feel deeply deeply satisfied by it, and that’s without having read Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress or Swift’s complete works. Perhaps I’m one of Chabon’s know-it-alls, but a shade less bilious, and without knowing it all. Am I supposed to feel angry and dissatisfied about the book? Would that be giving Joyce his satisfaction? Sweet revenge! thinks the dirt in the ground. Of course! But enough of this…

-(H): Perhaps the “lowness” or lone-ness of a person who could create such a work is unimaginable — Joyce must have been insane, he must have been “helpless,” he “drowned”! This is a ironically common shrill blast leveled antagonistically at Joyce, ironic because the attack is nowhere more viciously or clearly made than in filthy Shem/Jim making ink out of piss and shit and covering every surface in his cave and every inch of his body with his mad writing and infinite stories (I.7). The book itself presents this image of the author, although biographical sources tell us that JJ led a quiet, normal day-to-day existence with a regular work schedule, and in conversation with friends (such as Ford Maddox Ford) would quietly and with great clarity explain “the mystery of the titanic figure H.C.E., the unique, many-faceted hero of innumerable incarnations … the language he had adopted in order to give his vocabulary the elasticity of sleep, to multiply the meanings of words, to permit the play of light and color, and make of each sentence a rainbow to which each tiny drop is itself a many-hued prism” (Louis Gillet, quoted in Atherton’s Books at the Wake, p. 17). JJ didn’t write madly on til death or from a lunatic asylum; he stopped in 1939, when he had accomplished what he set out to do. FW is art, it is artifice, it was intricately designed and planned and then executed according to those plans; denying the work its own order is an error.

-(I): Interesting how Chabon chooses to only mention heterosexual pairings. I also recall gay sex between old men and little boys, brothers kissing and combining and fondling one another, in addition to the infinite interchangeable young girls unfailingly willing to please each other or any of their brothers (except for at the very end! spoiler!). This latecomer on the list feels like an awkward attempt at quietly suggesting misogyny, another common and silly jab at Joyce — as if Molly Bloom or Anna livia or Issy could ever be victimized, much less hated.

The only adequate response to Chabon’s piece is silence, of which I am incapable. The only adequate defense of FW (which is unnecessary) would be to control-paste lengthy quotes of agonizingly beautiful writing and heartbreaking moments from the book to prove that yes, it does have a plot and a point (Did you know that in chapter II.3 people in a tavern listen to a radio talk show and a broadcast of a boxing match which becomes a world war, the tailor’s daughter runs off with a captain and Buckley shoots the Russian general then King Roderick O’Connor collapses from misery and goes into a dream within a dream, perhaps the most beautiful sequence of the book, II.4, the “gospels” of Tristan and Isolde? But I digress.) I will instead just encourage that you read the book, friends. There’s no secret code to the mystery of history to be found — just the greatest writing in literature. If I could touch someone by the shoulders picking up this book for the first time, I would remind them of a few things:

It took 17 years to write.
It is like Ulysses, but so much better.
Once you get past the first chapter, it starts to make sense. If you can read that, you can read it all, page by page, line by line, chapter by chapter.
It’s lots of fun.

-W.G.G. Glasss
Article in full currently available here.
*E is bolded because it’s beautiful.

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