Friday, January 19, 2007

Joyce and Lemony Snicket

Pity me, pity me. I'm sick and have not had the energy to pursue my secondary reading of Vico, fascinating as it is. Instead I've polished off the last volume of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events. It was a gift. I had read the first four (out of thirteen) or so years ago and enjoyed them but not enough to keep it up. But there's nothing like an easy-to-read mopey tale while you're laid up so I gobbled it up figuring that I would be filled in to whatever extent necessary about what I had missed.

I enjoyed it, but as I'm tying things into Joyce here, I have to say that one of the aspects of my enjoyment was identical to my enjoyment of Joyce. Part of the humor of the book is its web of allusions--the fictional Snicket's dead love is Beatrice, an island of castaways has characters such as Mrs. Caliban, Ariel, Calypso, and intriguingly Finn. I eat this sort of stuff up now, but I can see kids eating it up even more as decoding each reference gives them more information about the world they're trying to figure out, and information recommended by an author they really like. When I was younger, I would chase after these kinds of things with a fervor that if I could only understand every aspect of this, I'll have ascended to the highest level of wisdom. Parents must like this too, although I pity the parent who is asked to explain why a baby with a strange vocabulary uses the word "Anais" to mean "flesh."

The parallel to Joyce is obvious, as Joyce's work also contains webs of allusions. When I read him, it awakens the same impulse I had when I was kid, just transformed into: "If I can read Vico, St. Augustine, Lawerence Sterne, Rabelais, and so on I'll have figured it out!" What "it" is and what it would mean to really "figure" it out I have no idea, but with a good enough reading list does it matter? Books that use allusions really well make you feel like you're not just reading a book but a history of the world, or at least its literature, and it's a wonderful feeling.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Last night I finnished the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter, and with it the first half of the Wake (eight out of sixteen chapters) or the first third of the Wake (200ish out of 600ish pages) or the first quarter of the Wake (first out of four books).

At this point, I’m tempted to consult some secondary literature for kicks, and blessed with a Borders gift card I got Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake and Giambattista Vico’s New Science.

The Skeleton Key I must admit I’m wary of. I got it as various people from David Earwigger Medine to the venerable Finnegans Wake Society of New York recommend it as an essential book. OK. But upon opening it up, I find that much of it “translates” the Wake into plain English, which necessarily flattens out the whole thing. Even in the introduction of the book, the opening statement “Finnegans Wake is a mighty allegory of the fall and resurrection of mankind” strikes me as depressingly two-dimensional. Still, it could be a handy reference if used gingerly. I’m just worried about the movie effect—you see a disappointing movie of a favorite book and when you got back to the book try as you might you can’t get Daniel Radcliffe or whoever out of your head as you’re reading.

I’m much more excited about Vico, whose name stirred me as a college freshman for its mystery and resemblance to the villain of Ghostbusters II (“So be it…”). Vico, for those who were napping in post-Renaissance Intellectual History was an 18th century Italian thinker whose writing was a major influence on the Wake. I understand that Joyce was primarily inspired by Vico’s conception of cyclical time, of history moving through cycles. The back of my newly arrived edition of New Science emphasizes Vico’s breaking away from the widespread adulation of the Romans and Greeks to point out that they were in fact genuinely weird. What’s his deal? I shall do my best to discover and report.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Finnegan wakes, has a cup of coffee, blogs about implicit music

As Isaac noted, the problem with blogging books is that it is difficult to keep pace with your reading. I thought this wouldn’t be the case with the Wake since it goes so slow but I was wrong. My lack of posting has not been due to any cowardly retreat from the Wake but due to gobbling it up at the expense of writing about it. But I would like to keep writing, so here we are again.

Joyce has said that the musical sense of the Wake is more important than deciphering its multilingual puns and puzzles. By the musical sense, he means the rhythm of the words, their sounds, etc. The above qualities are musical in a literal sense, yet Joyce is also playing with nonliteral implicit music.

The element which struck me most while reading large sections of the text was the way in which Joyce manipulates the ease with which we understand the text. There are parts which are nearly impenetrable, other parts where he is astonishingly clear and even whole passages with barely any puns to decipher. In controlling the degree of transparency on the text, Joyce is controlling his texture like a composer. Sections dense with puns and allusions are much like music with a dense texture with many contrasting melodies and rhythms swirling around each other. One still gets at least a vague sense of what’s happening in either case and certain fragments may leap out, but you would be hard pressed to say “this is the tune.”

In the same way, when the polyphony of the Wake becomes simpler, it becomes more akin to something like Mozart, namely that amidst the interesting different parts there is still a clear melody to hold on to and tell you where we’re going. Those alarming moments when Joyce writes plainly are almost like a chant in its relative simplicity and directness.

When writing about implicit music it’s tempting to stretch it far, and no doubt I will give in to that temptation at some point, because I can't help but see Joyce’s contrast between circles and squares in musical terms. But the analogy in this post is actually pretty tight. A composer’s control of the texture is mostly a matter of how much information the composer is going to throw at the audience and to what extent the composer will emphasize some information more than others. Joyce is controlling his texture in precisely the same way. His technique of writing can graft three our four meanings not just onto a single sentence but on a single word. The extent to which he layers meanings is analogous to musical counterpoint and his control of it is one of the pleasures of reading the damn thing.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Come out, come out, wherever you are...

The thing that makes blind dates so horrific-aside from the fact that you have no idea what type of visage is going to greet you at the bar-is that you’re expected to present “My Life Story- Abridged” to a complete stranger as a selling point that will win you a second date. Along with the usual “these are my goals”speech, and the “I work here just to pay the rent” speech, is the all too familiar “coming out story."

The “coming out story” is a staple of the lesbian date. Somewhere in between the 2nd and 3rd glass of wine stories of playing doctor with the little girl from across the street, or making out with your best friend naked in your mother’s bed, seem to just spill out of you. These stories gracefully evolve into full scale confessions of love to the first girlfriend, and then to even scarier confessions of self discovery to family, friends, etc. As you speak she smiles knowingly, and as she speaks you interject with energetic nods and "Yes! Omigod, totally!", until finally over dessert you’ve come full circle and can eat your cake knowing you've found common ground.

I get bored with the same old scenario on a date, but I will say it's nice to have a complete stranger turn into a strong ally after only a few drinks. One whose had the same thoughts, doubts, and desires as you've had and who has the potential of being a good friend if the whole romance thing doesn't really fly. Having recently gone on several dates with lovely women with whom I’ve shared my story, I thought I’d recommend for 2007 my favorite read of 2006 Alison Bechdel’s coming out story, “Fun Home.”

Bechdel shares not only her own sexual realization but also the discovery of her father‘s homosexuality and his suicide which followed shortly thereafter. “Fun Home” is a heartbreaking and intelligent read and I highly recommend it. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Oh Heck

From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's graphic exploration of Jack The Ripper and the Rise of the 20th Century is far more impressive than it is good. Impressive because of Moore's considerable gifts for research and drawing said research together (detailed extensively in a series of notes on sources of pretty much each page of the book in an appendix after the book is over), and not particularly good because it is never capable of sustaining much in the way of narrative tension, characterization or even visual beauty.

As in all of Moore's major work, From Hell is about a Mad Genius who sets himself a goal and then accomplishes it. In Watchmen this narrative structure worked because you actually didn't know that was the story you were reading until the very end. In V For Vendetta, this proved disasterous because you never doubt that V is going to do exactly what he says he's going to do, and thus there is no real reason to read the book once V has declared his intentions. From Hell is stuck somewhere in between. This is because Moore (as per usual) populates his book with lots of side characters and digressions that are, while more interesting than V For Vendetta, aren't as fascinating or moving as, say, The Nightowl or the newsstand denizens in Watchmen.

The problem with the whole Mad Genius plot line is that it is, at the end of the day, more about the writer than the character. After all, to write a genius, you have to at some level be a genius. And so I can never shake the suspicion reading Moore's work that on some level his fundamnetal point is about how much smarter he is than the reader. That certainly seems to be the point of V, anyway.

From Hell is a little bit different, because it shows the occasional high cost of said genius-- namely that it might turn you into a murderous psychopath. William Withey Gull, royal physician, mason, expert surgeon and stroke vicitm is held to be Jack the Ripper. He kills the prostitutes at the beheast of HRH Victoria herself, because they are blackmailing Prince Albert over a baby he fathered while living undercover as a student artist. Gull is himself a sociopath-- completely devoid of empathy, capable of doing (and justifying) just about everything. His goal, his life's work is to take the myths that form the foundation of Masonry (which he knows are pure bushwha) and make them Real through the ritual sacrifice of the Whitechapel prostitutes.

Needless to say, the book is dark. And Campbell's illustrations are as well. so dark that frequently I had trouble making out exactly what was going on, or who was speaking. All of the prostitutes dress alike. Many of them look alike. Ditto the upper crust men.

The book, at the end of the day, is bogged down by the historical fiction syndrome, where interesting facts/personages surrounding an event are brought together in ways that seem increasingly ludicrous. Witness Oscar Wilde's cameo late in the book, or the parts of the novel where people mention books, tropes, intellectuals, authors, events etc. apropos of nothing because Moore found it in some obscure Almanack. I think it's fascinating that someone predicted most of the events of the twentieth century. I don't see how it fits into a discussion of whether or not visiting American Indians were responsible for the Jack the Ripper killings.

This mix makes the novel intermittedly fascinating and frustrating, and this keeps the book earthbound when it desperately wants to soar. I think this will mark the end of my reading of Alan Moore. I loved Watchmen, I still think it's one of the Great Books of the 20th Century, but everything else he's written has left me somewhere between cold and frustrated to the point of anger.