Before I go much further reading FW, I should probably give a short primer on the book. Again, I’m trying not to read about the book this time through, so I’m going by memory of the hearsay I’ve picked up over the years. Which means I may be wrong, so please feel free to correct. Although the thing about FW is, even if you’re wrong, you might be right.
OK, first the title. It's a reference to an Irish song. Here's a video with lyrics [I fixed the link--it's a video now]. Tim Finnegan, who is known to enjoy a drink now and then, falls off a ladder and cracks his head. He's presumed dead, laid out on a bead, and is given a wake.When things get rowdy, Tim is revived with a splash of whiskey. [My wife pointed out that I had spelled ladder in this paragraph as latter (in the original version of this post), which I tried to justify by saying that it's the Irish pronunciation. She didn't buy it.]
The second thing to keep in mind is that this is a dream. It’s Joyce’s book of the night. Ulysses is known as Joyce’s book of the day because it all takes place in one day (June 16, 1904). It covers around 24 hours, so a lot of it actually takes place at night, but the characters are awake (though sometimes they are, let's say, delirious). For much of it, Joyce uses the famous “stream of consciousness” technique, which is a worn out phrase but extremely useful when talking about Ulysses and FW. The conscious thoughts of the characters in Ulysses are very stream like. They flow from one thought to another, and not always in an obvious, easily understandable way. In other words, the prose flows the way our thoughts actually do flow--by association. Which works sometimes under the light of consciousness and sometimes in the darkness of the subconscious.
I know this is all very abstract, but I’m going somewhere. If the conscious brain is (let’s say for the sake of argument) best represented in narrative form by a flow of obvious and not so obvious associative connections in the mind, how would one go about representing the mind when sleeping? This is the question Joyce posed himself when writing a dream book. His answer was to throw out the obvious, easily understandable associations we would recognize in a coherent mind that's awake, and leave the rest. I.e., the flow of associative connections that the conscious mind isn't even aware of. The subconscious.
Dreams are weird. We are all familiar with the weirdness. FW is just a man dreaming. That’s why it's weird and you can‘t understand anything. There’s no story. No plot. Give up trying to find one. At least that’s my suggestion.
But once you get over the plotless and (seemingly) chaotic nature of the book, it may be possible to get something out of FW. That’s my hope anyway.
For example, in the first page, appropriately enough, there are references to the beginning (Adam and Eve, recirculation) and references to the fall (literally, twice, “the fall”). Also, river is in the first word, and the man whose dream we are reading shows up here and throughout the book whenever we see the initials HCE (Howth Castle and Environs).
We are reading HCE’s dream, listening to the murmuring river of his subconscious, and for some reason he’s got Adam and Eve and the fall on his brain.