“Finnegans Wake is an unreadable book,” says Gerry Fialka. Such indictments of James Joyce’s cryptic, labyrinthine opus are hardly unusual, but this is a strange thing to hear from the guy who founded the Marshall McLuhan-Finnegans Wake Reading Club.
Monday marks 10 years since Fialka, a local activist and media ecologist, started the club, which meets the first Monday of every month at the Venice Public Library. The group, which is open to everyone, discusses Joyce’s work alongside that of legendary cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan, who once proclaimed Finnegans Wake “the greatest guidebook to media study ever fashioned by man.”
“We use Finnegans Wake to study anything from religion to toothpicks, computers to bulldozers, philosophy to cell phones. You can read Ted Nugent into it, or Princess Di, or People magazine,” Fialka says.
Written using words from 60 languages, Joyce’s dreamlike retelling of the history of humankind via protagonist Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, skips across space and time like someone twirling a radio dial. It’s disorienting, frustrating, and, many would agree, unreadable. But Fialka and company can’t get enough of it. “You don’t need to worry about understanding it,” he says. “You just need to read it out loud and see what happens.”
At each meeting, Fialka and his crew of academics and assorted interested folk read just two pages from the book, and, using McLuhan’s theories as a guide, allow discussion to unfold. And while 10 years may seem like a long time to spend discussing a single title, Wake is, after all, far from typical. “This is really not a book,” Fialka says. “It’s far beyond that – it’s a mind-altering experience. Reading Finnegans Wake is like tripping without taking any drugs.”
Psychedelia aside, McLuhan compared the work to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” about a drowning sailor who realizes that, by observing the behavior of the currents in which he is trapped, he can resist their pull and save himself. In this way, says Fialka, who now considers Joyce a 20th-century Nostradamus, Finnegans Wake helps to decode our own cultural maelstrom, and gives us the chance to swim free.
Marshall McLuhan-Finnegans Wake Reading Club. Venice Public Library, 501 S. Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 821-1769. Mon. at 6 p.m. Free. Info: Jesgrew.org/wake.