- "Finnegans Wake": A Plot Summary, and: Joyce's Book of the Dark: "Finnegans Wake"
It is arguably unfair for John Gordon's book on the Wake—or anyone else's likely to be published any time soon—to be paired in a review with John Bishop's, which is one of the most impressive works of scholarship and criticism to have appeared on James Joyce in years. Coupling the two works is also conceivably misleading, for aside from their subject they have hardly anything in common—except an urge to present an overview of the Wake, rather than, say, a series of annotations.
The overviews thus provided differ from each other radically. Gordon begins by stating that he aspires "to recount the events of Joyce's book in their order of occurrence, and to describe as accurately as possible the place and the people [End Page 726] involved in the action." Of course, even the word "plot" in his subtitle immediately involves him in controversy, assuming as it does that Joyce's book has a plot.
After preliminary but detailed chapters on the "time" and "place" of the novel and on various characters and character groupings, Gordon follows the novel paragraph by paragraph, after the similar pattern of Campbell and Robinson's Skeleton Key, Tindall's Reader's Guide, or Rose and O'Hanlon's Understanding "Finnegans Wake." I have no trouble with that approach, although I do with many of Gordon's particular "summaries." His report on the third paragraph of the novel, for example, doesn't mention the thunder word; soon after that, the account of the fifth paragraph concentrates on trying to support a particular interpretation rather than on providing a broadly helpful distillation. By then, too, a reader already familiar with the Wake will realize that Gordon's interpretations are occasionally idiosyncratic. Thus, in the introductory chapter entitled "Males," he devotes more space to Sackerson—"the mystery man of the Wake"—than to Shem and Shaun combined. (Glasheen's Third Census gives Sackerson four lines; he never appears at all—under that name—in Bishop's book.)
Perhaps Gordon is right about Sackerson's importance; he knows the Wake extraordinarily well, and again and again throughout this study I'm impressed by his grasp of its details. However, I'm less receptive to another of his emphases: on the autobiographical nature of the entire novel. He argues that there are two dreamers—James Joyce, in Paris, and his father, John Joyce, back in Ireland—or, more specifically, that James Joyce is dreaming in Paris about his father's dream back in Ireland. Even more central to Gordon's interpretation of the book, it turns out, is his conviction that basic to the presentation of Issy, around whom he says everything in the Wake revolves, is Joyce's relationship with his daughter, Lucia, so that Gordon comes to what he calls the "cruel conclusion" that "the Original Sin of Finnegans Wake is the act of intercourse which produced Lucia Joyce."
Gordon is rarely reluctant to be precise and specific about the happenings in the Wake. He is willing, for example, to tell us the precise date of the night depicted: Monday, 21 March 1938, and early Tuesday, the 22nd (the latter date being Nora's birthday). He presents detailed evidence for this claim, but I can't help but suspect that similar cleverness could have defended untold numbers of other possible dates. In any case, is that the sort of information needed by someone coming to a book promising a "plot summary"? A novice to the Wake will be daunted by the many prolonged arguments about what will seem totally perplexing and, as yet, not very interesting controversies. For such a reader, too many of the discussions throughout Gordon's book are really arguments, depending on an awareness of aspects of the book that no newcomer would have. After a time, of course, one realizes...