by Ed Malin · August 14, 2014
After seeing Adam Harvey’s engrossing one-man show, I feel even more strongly that if you want to understand James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (even a little), you need to read it out loud. The book is an impressive way of retelling stories in something resembling English, thereby engaging the childlike, language-acquiring skills of the audience, with the aim of unobscuring meaning. (Mr. Harvey, I do hope I got that right, because when you said it it was quite clear.) The show consists of readings of several passages from Finnegan’s Wake—the selections change each time—and, should you want to follow along, real-time projections of the rich text are on a screen. So widely does the tone vary, that three separate sections felt like three entirely different books. You might be amazed and vow to read the novel immediately. You might be very confused. You will surely be in awe of Harvey’s verbal dexterity in reconstituting the sing-song, playfully Irish tongue-twisters. Take an innocent-sounding Aesop’s fable such as The Fox and the Grapes, rename it The Mookse and the Gripes, distort most of the words so they’re more interesting to hear, add sound effects that run to dozens of letters (just like in nature, perhaps), and you’ve got something beautiful.
Those who love the book really love it. I love it because the more attention I pay to each word (especially the puns that come about every six words) the more I get out of it. How many authors truly put in the time to make something so big and funny and subversive? Rabelais comes to mind. But Finnegan’s Wake is a pretty unique bunch of fables and poems, to say nothing of the plot, which involves a lot of different people who have the initials H.C.E.
If you’re tired after an hour, just imagine how much effort Harvey has put into the multiple Joyce-based performances he is giving at FringeNYC, as well as his shows about Ulysses. Don’t Panic. There’s something for everybody here.