The problem with novels is that the vast majority of readers expect them to have plots. That is, they want a clearly identified protagonist or protagonists facing a concretely described problem that they slowly investigate, act to solve, and then manage the aftermath. This is the standard rising-climax-falling structure of a plot that people are taught in high school literature studies. I prefer novels that are more narrative than plot, because plots have clear beginning and endpoints. The characters exist in the service of the plot, rather than serving as points of interest themselves. I read and I write stories that don’t have plots, as much as they have explorations, narratives, collisions of people.
Then I came to face Finnegans Wake, which doesn’t even really have characters. Looking for a narrative in this book is an academic cottage industry, as is looking for a clearly defined cast of characters. But I think there’s another way of reading this book, which actually fits its style better than an attempt to find (or interpret into it) clear characters and narratives. It’s a poem, constructed from emotionally evocative language, its rhythms, allusions, and allegories. There are recurring motifs, some of which receive clear definition in one part of the book so they can be better recognized in the rest of the work. HCE, Anna Livia, and Shem the Penman are some of these motifs. But the writing is meant to affect a reader the way a tone poem, or a piece of music does.
If anything, I suppose the entire thrust of James Joyce’s writing was a series of experiments that slowly jettisoned reliance on plot, then narrative, then even character. The stories of Dubliners were intricately constructed plots, situations whose narrative arcs created detailed situations that climaxed in a character defining epiphany. Portrait of the Artist eschewed the careful construction of plot for a series of five moments that exemplified the transformation of a character as he grew from a dependent child to an independent adult. Ulysses left narrative behind for a series of events contingently connected through the characters that wandered among them. Wake abandons even the constancy of characters. I’m not sure what to call whatever remains.
But I’ve had some profoundly strange ideas about how the Wake’s techniques influenced other artworks.
I found a very intersting interpretation of the Star Wars prequels a couple of months ago that reads them in the same way. It actually fits with some of what I know about their production, and how George Lucas envisioned particular scenes. If you watch Red Letter Media’s detailed reviews of the prequels, one of the critiques of Lucas’ narratives is that he includes specific images that mirror or parallel images from the original trilogy, but that these images lack their emotional impact when they appear without the investment of the individual characters.
When Leia sees Boba Fett’s ship taking off from the dock at Cloud City, she’s emotionally devastated, because the man she loves may have disappeared forever. When Padme watches Count Dooku’s ship take off from the dock of his mountain base, she doesn’t have the same emotional investment in the moment. Lucas created parallel images, but didn’t realize that the emotional connection of audience to story comes from the narrative itself, not the image alone.
That article above suggests that Lucas had always envisioned the story of the prequels told through images alone, not through narrative, and that he had to create his overcomplicated, emotionally cold narrative to get the proper images into the films. In other words, Lucas was stuck, because of the economics of his own film company, making a sci-fi blockbuster, when he really wanted to make a new La Jetée, on an enormous scale.
La Jetée was a silent French film whose narrative would form the skeleton of Twelve Monkeys. But its technique was to tell a story entirely through images that created emotional tones, crafted using motifs that allowed viewers to track the triggers of these emotions, and the relationships between those triggers. It was a film told with the same techniques of Finnegans Wake.