Grappling With 'Finnegans Wake'

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Michael Chabon has an essay in the New York Review of Books in which he tackles the monster. For the record people, this is how you write a lede:


Like many admirers of the work of James Joyce, I had imposed strict terms on that admiration, and around the work I had drawn a clear ambit, beyond which I was unprepared to stray. Ulysses and "The Dead": crucial works, without which life was something seen through a sheet of wax paper, handled with gloves of thick batting, overheard through a drinking glass pressed to a wall. Between them those two works managed to say everything a pitying heart and a pitiless intellect could say about death and sex and love and literature, loss and desire, friendship and animosity, talk and silence, mourning and dread. Then there were "Araby," "A Little Cloud," and "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," each a masterpiece, endlessly rereadable, from which I had learned so much about short stories and their deceptive power; one can learn a lot from all the stories in Dubliners, even the sketchier ones: about point of view and the construction of scene, about the myth of Charles Parnell and horse racing in Ireland, about the pain of grief and of missed chances. 

Beyond Dubliners there was the unlovable A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which starts well, charting bold, clear routes, like "Araby," through the trackless waters of childhood, then fouls its rotors in a dense kelpy snarl of cathected horniness, late-Victorian aesthetics, and the Jesuitical cleverness that, even in Ulysses, wearies the most true-hearted lover of Joyce. A stamp in the passport, Portrait, a place I must visit without ever feeling it necessary to return, though I might want to wander out now and then to drop in on Joyce's poetry, roughly contemporary with the first novel, those curious "pomes," wearing their spats and dandyish nosegays, occasionally taking up a putative lute to croon promises of theoretical love to unconvincing maidens in the windows of canvas-flat donjons. 

After that I came up against the safety perimeter, beyond which there lurked, hulking, chimerical, gibbering to itself in an outlandish tongue, a frightening beast out of legend.

The thing I love about Chabon's writing is that he has always taken pulp, seriously--which is to say his aesthetics are democratic, and rooted in the sense that beauty is all around. This lede is like something about of high fantasy. And yet in framing it that way, Chabon really evokes the monster.

I haven't even made it through Dubliners. One day I'll get there. I'm just waiting on my mind to mature. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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