I firmly believe that most who have read -- or so they say -- "Finnegans Wake" extoll its virtues because, to coin a phrase, its reputation precludes it. I am only aware of one detractor: Vladimir Nabokov, who, while considering "Ulysses" one of the four greatest works of the 20th century (a view which I don't share, incidentally), described labelled "FW" only a blot on his memory. (Note: not offered as a proof.) What is "FW", what is it really? Ultimately, I declaim it a failure -- not because I don't like it (an understatement!), but a failure on its OWN terms; and these, after all, are the only terms which any given work of art is obligated to fulfill. I offer one example of this failure -- an example which, however, is crucial to the entire structure of the book. "FW" is, within the story (such as it is) of one man, one family, supposed to represent the history of all of humankind. The history, of course, is relatively easy to represent, with its contextual Vico-ian circularity &c.; but the humankind is a foundering point (no pun intended). Joyce portrays this omnium gatherum of humanity through the meduim of what is commonly referred to as "dream consciousness," the collective unconscious of history, and he exemplifies this through a gallimaufry of languanges: all people, all languages. Fine, makes sense. And it also makes sense that there is a predominant language: English (alright: a very broguish Irish-English), because Finnegan/Humphrey/et al. is/are Irish. But we've glossed over the problem: all people, NOT all languages. Joyce, while being a brilliant linguist, didn't remotely have even snippets -- or even a good percentage -- of all of the languages extant (never mind those of antiquity); and while I'm perfectly willing to accept that NO ONE could have the languages to pull off this idea properly, that does nothing to the fact that Joyce fails to successfully complete his endeavor (on this front). I don't care if Michael Johnson is (currently, at least) the world's fastest 200 meter runner: if he promises a 15-sec. performance and runs it in 19, he's failed to deliver, period! Joyce's idea here IS possible: since there are certainly a finite number of languages, it would be quite possible to represent them all within one book, even if not humanly possible. What Joyce does, though, is make a helluva LOT of languages stand in for ALL languages. Weak, very.
There's a lot more wrong with "FW", too. For example, in a great many of his neojoylogisms, Joyce conveniently ignores the possible readings of his recombinations -- and subsequently asks the reader to do so. Joyce, the control freak, is not in complete control, his words come back to haunt him. (I don't say this is all the time, but . . .)
And I haven't even gotten to my tag line: the ultimate one-trick pony. (Okay: a couple of tricks.) "FW" is nothing more than a collection of erstwhile fables and puns, served up with the aforementioned linguistic salad (vide supra for the implicative failures of the latter). There's nothing to probe beneath this rococo surface, only the unscrambling and decoding. Recirculation of history? That can be probed in a paragrpah or two, perhaps a pair of pages. What else? Does Joyce score points of originality? Of course! Ambition? O my! But how long before different manifestations of HCE gets old? Just because Joyce's allegories are bigger must we pretend he came up with the idea? Ad rem ad nauseum.
If you love Joyce's writing (and I never much do) here, fine. Perhaps you'll find his puns amusing, his tales compelling. Certainly his workmanship is impressive -- I don't care how short it ultimately measures up. To me, "FW" is a crucible of Joyce's elementary particles, his three flavors of quark -- patience, knowledge, and ego. But I suspect that this book is little above what could be produced by a later series of HAL if you fed it enough information and a rather simple list of specifications. No computer could approach "Lolita", "Crime and Punishment", or "Arcadia" -- or "Ulysses", for that matter; but "FW" does so few things (instead simply doing them over and over and over and over (okay, perhaps that's somewhat fitting), changing the players but never the play) that it seems little more than the work of a machine, so contained is the arc of creativity which subsumes the various recombinatives. Madelbrot sets produce something similar, although with infinite (as far as we know) variety. I give it a 6: one above average for all that hard work. O Jamesy!