Wake(y) Wake(y)

It’s been far too long since I wrote anything on here. But now that my brain has started producing such high-grade academic horseshit I think it might be time to opt for some words with fewer syllables—even if these shorter words are used up mostly in describing the horror of the longer ones.

I’m writing a chapter on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake at the moment, and writing about ‘the’ Wake when you’re not a fulltime Joyce scholar is a frightening experience. The book is astonishingly good, of course, and worthy of the praise it receives, but I can quite understand the opprobrium too. A critic called Ruben Borg says somewhere that ‘the’ Wake teaches you that there are books you still need to learn to read, and that’s exactly what it feels like. I spend much of my time just stumbling about from word to word, like a drunk looking for his keys, and every time I think I’m getting somewhere close to unlocking a phrase, a sentence, a passage, I discover it’s just the change in my pockets, jingling about and confusing things.

The real absurdity, though, is that it can only be a single chapter. People spend their entire lives reading this bloody book, and I somehow need to say something interesting (perhaps even original) about it over the course of what really amounts to just 7 or 8 months. And having recently screeded several thousand words about the meaning of just one, it seems that this is a task with an unlikely and unknowable end, a bit like Finnegans Wake itself.

I do already have a contingency plan though. Should I be fortunate enough to make it to my viva exam and be unfortunate enough to be asked a question on this chapter, I’m just going to filibuster my way through and then knock up a homemade degree certificate on a passing Etch A Sketch. Ta da!


Eating Animals (again)

To anyone who’s already done a bit of reading on factory farming and animal welfare, Jonathon Safran-Foer’s book Eating Animals is unlikely to say anything all that new, but what it will do is present the old arguments in a new and impassioned way.

Safran-Foer is happy to admit that the arguments against eating animals are deeply subjective, multifaceted and often hypocritical, and this is reflected in the structure of the book itself, where the author’s own polemic is interleaved with often conflicting, personalised accounts from animal rights activists, factory farmers and vegans (among others).

This narrative style lends the book an engaging and readable quality that so many of the more stern treatises on the subject lack, and it’s for this reason—coupled with the author’s already well-established reputation as an author with Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—that I hope Eating Animals will reach as wide an audience as possible.

Buy it. Then read it. And then encourage others to do the same.

Here are some bits that had me reaching pen-ward:

“Not responding is a response—we are equally responsible for what we don’t do. In the case of animal slaughter, to throw your hands in the air is to wrap your fingers around a knife.”
p. 226

“Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else? If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals that live miserable lives and (quite often) die in horrific ways isn’t enough, what is? If being the number one contributor to the most serious threat facing the planet (global warming) isn’t enough, what is? And if you are tempted to put off these questions of conscience to say not now, then when?
p. 243

“However much we obfuscate or ignore it, we know that the factory farm is inhumane in the deepest sense of the word. And we know that there is something that matters in a deep way about the lives we create for the living beings most within our power. Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless—it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another.”
pp. 266–267

“When we lift our forks, we hang our hat somewhere. We set ourselves in one relationship or another with farmed animals, farm-workers, national economies and global warming. Not making a decision—eating ‘like everyone else’—is to make the easiest decision, a decision that is increasingly problematic. Without question, in most places and in most times, to decide one’s diet by not deciding—to eat like everyone else—was probably a fine idea. Today, to eat like everyone else is to add another straw to the camel’s back. Our straw might not be the backbreaker, but the act will be repeated—every day of our lives, and perhaps every day of the lives of our children and our children’s children.”
pp. 261–262

Eating animals

Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Eating Animals, has been serialised in The Guardian this past week, and if you’re unlikely to pick up a copy of the book itself, then I implore you to at least read the extracts. His writing on this topic has such clarity, drive and purpose, and it just seems to make so much bloody sense. (But then I would say that I suppose.)

Remain unmoved and you will earn my frustrated astonishment, which I will dribble out, bag up and post to you via DHL.

Reading music

I can no longer listen to Krulle Bol by This Is The Kit without Flann O’Brien’s masterful novel The Third Policeman flooding my synapses. This is equally true of Mumford & Sons’ debut album Sigh No More and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In some kind of audio–literary Proustian rush, particular chord progressions and lyrics trigger these books to bleed from the music, evoking not only plots, but also the sensations I felt whilst absorbed in reading them.

Music does, of course, always have this associative power—Thee Silver Mt. Zion’s album Horses in the Sky has now become completely synonymous with the final two years of my English degree in London—but I particularly enjoy these most recent linkages because of their specificity. Somewhere inside my brain, two distinct artistic creations have welded themselves together in such a way that I can now no longer think of one without the other. It’s as if I now have a bespoke soundtrack to the author’s work, and a brand new book of lyrics to boot.

(I should probably point out that this is entirely as a result of my new-found, subterranean reading habit. I now read almost exclusively on the MTR, and nearly always ‘to music’, so providing an album has piqued my interest enough to merit multiple listens, there’s plenty of opportunity for these connections to establish themselves.)

I suspect though, that there still needs to be an underlying affinity between a book and an album for the coupling to take place. Kate Stables’ ethereal, flawless voice on Krulle Bol, for instance, lends itself perfectly to the otherworldly landscape of The Third Policeman, and the lightly-rasping vocals of Marcus Mumford, especially on ‘After the Storm’, seem to express, to me at least, the quiet determination of the father in The Road. But maybe this is just doing history backwards.

By way of experiment, I have now started listening to Burial’s Untrue whilst reading Oscar Wilde’s dandy-soaked novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. I suspect this may be a disjunct too far, but only time will tell. I’ve only read about 40 pages, so there may be a chapter on the death of rave yet. If the result is of any interest, I may report back.

Other possible unions include: 1984 and Rodrigo y Gabriela; Mr Sneeze and Godspeed You! Black Emperor; Delia’s How to Cook and Venetian Snares; The Little Prince and Throbbing Gristle …

Anyway, you get the picture …