28 August 2016

Book Review: Finnegans Wake by James Joyce

Oh jeez, I hated this book. And when I finally reached the end, I couldn't be happier.

The thing is, I looked at this book as a challenge. Decades ago, I have read James Joyce's Dubliners, and while I guess I was still too young to appreciate it, I think I liked it. Then when I was in college, I took it as a challenge to read Ulysses, and that I definitely liked. So it has always been in my list to read Finnegans Wake, given the hype it has, and the extraordinary and unusual prose this book has.

A month and 600 pages later, I should say that I did not like this book. In fact, I hated it.

What is it about?

Well, that's the thing. It is very hard to tell what this book is about. Is there a story? Even scholars don't agree what the book is about. It is not like any novel I have seen, it is very experimental, and definitely out on a league of its own. So if you are thinking of reading this because you want to read a story, then forget it. Don't read this book, and pick up something else instead.

See, this book uses plenty of multilingual puns and plenty of other linguistic devices. There are plenty of new words and invented words. So when I was reading this, my natural reading habits were disturbed. Usually, you would read prose and the words you identify and recognize will then send commands to your brain to retrieve items in your mental lexicon. This book doesn't do that. You read sentences, and most of the words in the sentences are either new or foreign, and so there isn't any meaning that is activated. After reading this book, I feel a thirst to read a regular book for a change, and perhaps re-learn how it is like to read a real book. Because seriously, this isn't one.

The funny thing is that I do get the point. The text is written in the stream of consciousness style, and there is no structure whatsoever. There are plenty of allusions and associations spanning multiple languages and vocabularies. If you speak another language aside from English, then you would have a better experience in this book, because you'd be able to identify these multilingual connections more. When I was reading it, I saw words that looked like German, Spanish, French, Japanese, among others. What should I say? James Joyce has given the world a multilingual world salad.

Now the thing is if he wanted to prove a point, then I don't think he needed 600 pages to do that. After the first hundred pages, my patience started to decline. I get it, he wanted to write some experimental art in literary form, and I thought he could already accomplish that in 200 pages. But no, he gave the world 600 pages, eating 17 years of his life. I started being impressed, but after finishing the book, I ended up being wasted, tired, and hating the book.

Though to be honest, what I hate more than the book is the platoons of scholars who have written dissertations about this book. After all, this book is quite hard to analyze, let alone summarize. Several people tried summarizing the book, and needless to say, they don't agree with each other. So to write a dissertation claiming that you have enough knowledge to decode this book and understand it, enough to earn a PhD, is plain arrogant.

Don't read this if you want to be mentally transported somewhere in some fictitious locale. Read this if you want to crash your brain instead. I give it 1 out of 5 stars.

See my other book reviews here.

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