Tag Archives: Finnegans Wake


September 1985. I am beginning my second year as a drama undergraduate student at the University of Calgary. I walk into the bookstore and buy my required course books, plus this:

It is in the course books for some English course, possibly a graduate-level one. They don’t check whether you’re enrolled in a course before they let you buy a course book. I may have deprived some English student of the chance to buy Joyce’s famed masterwork.

I doubt it, though.

I had first read about this book in a Time magazine anniversary issue looking back over the past most-of-a-century. The book, described as having no discernible plot and not written in normal English, sounded fascinating. It is 628 published pages long and took 17 years to write (1922–1939). There is no apostrophe in the title; that is deliberate, to encourage a multiple reading: the wake of Finnegan; the waking of Finnegans; an injunction to Finnegans to wake.

I take out my wet-ink pen and write my name on the fly leaf, a river of blue running to dry and mark my passage.

This was back when my signature was almost legible. That signature would not work for forgery now. My current signature looks like the dust cloud that always follows Pigpen in the Peanuts comics.

I read this book like an exercise program, 10 pages a day, whether I understood them or not. It was a marathon, a 63-day marathon, all while I was putting up with a difficult roommate and he was putting up with a difficult roommate. But it was a huge influence on me. I wrote quite a lot of unreadable incoherent garbage for some time afterwards. It may have stunted my development as a writer for a year or two. Probably not, though; I was so immature, nothing I wrote was really worth the effort for a very long time.

The calligraphy of the cover I loved; I had loved calligraphy for me for some time. We may count that as another influence. Somewhere around then, I made this poster.

The water blur was not intentional. It happened when someone, in a water fight with my roommate, splashed a large mugfull through our doorway and nailed the poster squarely, rivers of cold tap water running the ink to exceed the paper. The dude was apologetic, but I must admit it was probably an improvement.

The motto was not intended as a reference to Finnegans Wake, but it might as well have been. Joyce truly exceeded all reasonable bounds. Perhaps when I am retired, at age 102, I will read it again and begin to understand it. We all know that Shakespeare made up a lot of words, but Joyce made up as many on any given page. Here’s one chosen at random.

Invention is much easier when you are not constrained to coherence.

What word could I possibly choose from all this? The first: riverrun.

It is also the one after the last. The narrative loops back on itself, like a fever dream that simply doesn’t end. The final sentence stops in the middle and is resumed at the beginning. I have paused in the middle of that sentence, dammed, but damned if I don’t pick it up again in the full course of time.

Is this a word beyond the shores of this book? It is, with a caveat. As of the mid-1800s, it was known as two words, river run, the course of a river. It shows up in the 1900s as one word. The first known instance is the one you have just seen. All other uses refer to this. This word is like a canal barge or river boat, carrying that freight. And what river does it ride on? The stream of consciousness. A stream prone to frequent overrun. The marks it has left on the riparian strand are the letters of this book.

River Run is also the name of a race. Have you seen the movie Run, Fatboy, Run? Do not take it as counsel for preparing for a marathon; its details in respect to running are less realistic than the contents of Joyce’s book, but never mind, it’s entertainment. The marathon the protagonist decides to run is not the London Marathon but the Nike River Run. The London Marathon was not available for use because another film had secured rights to using it. The Nike River Run is not a race in the real world. But doesn’t that make it just all the more suitable?

So. Riverrun brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. Howth Castle is a real place. But HCE are the initials recurring through the book; its protagonist (yes! it has one! like a dirty leaf floating on the current, followed by an unsteady, blurry camera) is Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, not a real-world person. Howth Castle, for its part, sits on a peninsula north of Dublin. There is swerve of shore and bend of bay to get to it, but not a riverrun in sight.

Still. This word riverrun has those three liquid letters r r r, the second overrunning into the third. The ocean by the castle has enough liquid to sustain it. The rivers of time ever run, and the sea is eternal. And in the end, after a lifetime of incoherence, it loops back on itself.

And after that, I read Ulysses, which Joyce wrote before Finnegans Wake, and which actually makes sense.


riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

Wander over to the shelf and pick up James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, open it to its ostensible beginning, and those are the words you join it at. It picks up in the middle of something. You find you are coming back around to wherever it was you were supposed to be, by way of “a commodius vicus of recirculation.”

I think that is a fine phrase for a detour.

Of course, every evening when I sit here at my laptop I make a detour: I turn abruptly into a particular word and inflate it like a balloon universe; I whirl around like an epicycle and, having had the tour, land back at my cluttered table in time (or a bit late) to head off to bed. But I had another detour today, on the way to work.

There is construction on Overlea Boulevard. There is construction everywhere in Toronto right now; there is no reasonable way for me to get from home to work without passing through a bottleneck caused by some – or going wide around it. Today, abruptly, and with barely any announcement, the bus driver decided to go around. He turned south, into a neighbourhood I see passing by on the right every morning but have never been in: Thorncliffe Park.

Some passengers on the bus were concerned. One young woman, whom I have seen on the bus dozens of times over the past couple of years but have never spoken to, a pretty blonde woman in her early twenties who sometimes applies her makeup while travelling but today was wearing a fur-lined hood, looked up and around, suddenly alarmed. I explained that the driver was detouring to avoid the construction. I reassured her that it would end up back on Overlea and back on its usual route. She smiled and explained she had been half asleep and had just looked up and realized she didn’t recognize any of it.

The route the bus took was new to me, too. It was fascinating to see this neighbourhood, denser than it looked from a distance, shops and schools and all that, almost more reminiscent to me of suburban south London. But I knew that the route was actually the route another bus regularly took. One bus’s routed is another’s detour – suddenly preposterous, out of order, even though all still there as ever. And then when you have toured you are returned to what you turned away from.

That is, after all, what detour is from: French détour, ‘change of direction’, from détourner, ‘turn away’. But after you turn away you turn back. You turn again.

Or after you have turned towards, you turn away. We turned towards the neighbourhood. We turned into it. We toured it briefly. We turned back. We returned. The tour was over. But I had seen what I had not seen before, and I will remember it, though for all I know I may not see it again.

And I had conversed, briefly, with a familiar stranger. The glass wall slid open, but just for a moment. When you ride the bus first thing in the morning you don’t want to have to talk, not really. You don’t want to incur a social obligation, an expectation to chat every time. You want to read or sleep. So if you talk with someone, it’s understood that it’s a detour. An open door of a house, walked past and glanced into, is not a house you have visited. This is still officially a stranger.

But a stranger you have spoken to. Just ever so slightly different. A neighbourhood visited once. All of a universe in the space between two taps of the tip of the tongue. Like wandering off the beaten path into a field. Like walking down the dirt road that runs west off Don Mills north of Overlea, between the tall flowers to an end at a declivity, convexing towards the valley, and then turning back to come to the street again. Or like dreaming briefly, or waking briefly from a dream. Perhaps, as with Joyce, a dream that took 17 years to complete. And then back to the origin.

Yes, tid. There’s where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thous-endsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the