When people call Gerry Fialka to inquire about the Marshall McLuhan-Finnegans Wake Reading Club, he may tweak them a bit: "Have you read both McLuhan and the Wake?" If they say, "Oh, yes," an eyebrow lifts.
"You can't really read 'Finnegans Wake,' " says Fialka, only study it. Only very recently did he even try. And, he's quick to confess, "I've never read a McLuhan book all the way through. I'm a total Cliff Notes person."
So what's Fialka, 43, a self-described "media ecologist and scavenger artist" and experimental filmmaker, doing on a Monday night at the Venice Abbot Kinney Branch Library, guiding the committed, the confused and the curious through the intricacies of James Joyce's 1939 masterpiece?
And what does McLuhan, the late Canadian theorist who in the '60s vaulted to fame as the oracle of the electronic age, who gave the world "the medium is the message" and "global village," have to do with James Joyce?
Well, McLuhan himself, a Joyce devotee, said, "Much of what I talk about is in 'Finnegans Wake.' " In other words, says Fialka, he was saying, "Let's look at how Joyce is teaching us the history of all the technologies we're using."
The novel is the stream-of-consciousness dream of one Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, a pub keeper. His dream, sometimes nightmarish, is sort of a history of man. Earwicker's initials, reappearing throughout the text, also stand for Here Comes Everyman.
Some have deduced that Earwicker is dreaming while awake, that, battered by assaults from the new technologies, he's chosen to hide within his subconscious. McLuhan interpreted it that way, saying, "This is the meaning of the title."
The title is taken from an Irish-American folk ballad, "Finnegan's Wake," about a tippling bricklayer who cracks his skull in a fall from a ladder. At his wake, he astounds mourners by rising up and bellowing, "Bad luck . . . d'ye think I'm dead?"
Fialka, who lives in Venice, was turned on to both writers by Bob Dobbs, a New York-based McLuhan archivist and "Wake" fanatic he met while working for Frank Zappa in the '80s. Fialka figured that McLuhan, having been both hailed as a genius and dismissed as a kook, had to be "somebody worth checking out." As for "Finnegans Wake," "Everyone wants to know, what did Joyce mean?"
The reading club is an eclectic, age-spanning mix that includes a handful of "Wake" fanatics and others who, Fialka observes, enjoy "showing off their intellectual chops," dropping names and events as obscure as those in the "Wake."
Monthly sessions, which began in October, regularly draw 20 to 30 people. Those seeking an instant fix on the "Wake" don't get it. Fialka just tells them, "Let this stuff wash over you. Don't try too hard to understand it."
Joyce's novel, with its poetic rhythms, copious puns and portmanteau words, cries to be read aloud, so Fialka picks readers, assuring them, "The more you mess up, the better."
Then the group tries to decipher the passages. "So far I have no idea what he's talking about," says one man. "It feels like it's another language, but not another language."
It is. Joyce melded 60 languages into his playful prose, creating words such as "bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronnt onnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawn toohoohoordenenthurnuk"--composed of fragments of words in various languages for thunder--to indicate the first thunder, or the first phase of civilization.
The "Wake" relates a dream and, as Joyce once explained, a dream state "cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wide-awake language."
Group discussion somehow segues to a subject dear to true McLuhanites: the potential isolating effect of the Internet. When their hero coined "global village," he was saying that the pervasive electronic media, providing instant access to information, delete time and space and create a universal consciousness that results in a moving back to the oral tradition of primitive tribal societies.
But back to the "Wake." We are only on Page 8--620 pages to go--and mystification reigns. Says one woman, "If I'd picked this up on my own, I'd have thought Joyce had one Guinness too many at the local pub."
"Oh, no," corrects another. "Joyce drank only white wine."
Another confesses, "I always avoided this work because I felt it was over the top, and I still do. I think he wrote it to be a crossword for scholars for hundreds of years."
Fialka grins, then tells the story that Joyce, dismayed at the critical praise heaped on "Ulysses," decided "I'll show them" and labored 16 years to write a totally bewildering book.
Together, the group stumbles through words such as "Lipoleum" and "Willingdone Museyroom." What's going on here on Page 8? Is "Willingdone" really "Wellington?" Are we touring a war museum? Marc Free, a true "Wake" buff, offers a comforting thought: On Page 18 there's a sentence with only real words. "Maybe in a couple of years we'll get to that," Fialka replies.
Free, 30, who on his own devoted a year to the first three pages, is up to Page 30. To him, the "Wake" is both a "relief valve," pure escapism, and a way of losing himself in "a more peaceful, or more humorous, place." A jazz musician, he takes the book along on gigs so he's never without reading material during down times.
The first half-hour of the Marshall McLuhan-Finnegans Wake Reading Club is devoted to things McLuhanesque, the next hour to the "Wake." Because McLuhan loved a good joke--G.K. Chesterton's comic verse was a favorite--Fialka always solicits a joke of the day. One that bears repeating: What did the Dalai Lama say to the hot dog vendor? Make me one with everything.
There are other "Finnegans Wake" clubs, and "Wake" Web sites, but, Fialka says, the McLuhan-Finnegans Wake group is his creation. He wanted to help people grasp what he sees as McLuhan's core message: "If you study the effects of technology, you don't become its slave."
One interpretation of "the medium is the message" is that content aside, mass communication changes the pace and pattern of human affairs, thus creating psychological environments to which we subordinate ourselves without seeing the price we pay.
As the weeks go by, members of the group continue their assault on the "Wake," like archeologists seeking a Rosetta stone. They tackle "bushellors" and "Pukkaru." "Clearly, I haven't the faintest idea what I'm talking about," says one man, "but maybe 'pukkaru' is Sanskrit for 'peck,' " to go with "bushellors."
Some are observers. Others, like Kyle Kowerduck, 28, of Panorama City, are participants. Sightless, he has heard the "Wake" read on tape. It seduced him because "every phrase has multiple meanings" and because he finds in it a wake-up call to those trapped in humdrum existences.
As the group struggles with the "Wake's" big picture, Fialka suggests one interpretation: "It's a person who dreams everything that ever happens." Free nods. "That was the 'Jeopardy!' answer."
Pausing over an oblique word sounding a bit like "syrup," one man suggests that it could be a reference to some historical figure or "It's possible that [Joyce] might have had pancakes that morning."
On July 1, when the club reconvenes, members will plow their way through another two pages. With luck, Fialka says happily, they may reach the one-third mark "by the year 2010."