From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Finnegans Wake is a work of comic prose by Irish author James Joyce, significant for its experimental style and resulting reputation as one of the most difficult works of fiction in the English language. Written in Paris over a period of seventeen years, and published in 1939, two years before the author's death, Finnegans Wake was Joyce's final work. The entire book is written in a largely idiosyncratic language, consisting of a mixture of standard English lexical items and neologistic multilingual puns and portmanteau words, which many critics believe attempts to recreate the experience of sleep and dreams. Owing to the work's expansive linguistic experiments, stream of consciousness writing style, literary allusions, free dream associations, and its abandonment of the conventions of plot and character construction, Finnegans Wake remains largely unread by the general public.
Despite these obstacles, readers and commentators have reached a broad consensus about the book's central cast of characters and, to a lesser degree, its plot. However, a number of key details remain elusive. The book treats, in an unorthodox fashion, the Earwicker family, composed of the father HCE, the mother ALP, and their three children Shem the Penman, Shaun the Postman, and Issy. Following an unspecified rumour about HCE, the book, in a nonlinear dream narrative, follows his wife's attempts to exonerate him with a letter, his sons' struggle to replace him, Shaun's rise to prominence, and a final monologue by ALP at the break of dawn. The opening line of the book is a sentence fragment which continues from the book's unfinished closing line, making the work a never-ending cycle. Many noted Joycean scholars such as Samuel Beckett and Donald Phillip Verene link this cyclical structure to Giambattista Vico's seminal text La Scienza Nuova ("The New Science"), upon which they argue Finnegans Wake is structured.
Joyce began working on Finnegans Wake shortly after the 1922 publication of Ulysses. By 1924 installments of Joyce's new avant-garde work began to appear, in serialized form, in Parisian literary journals transatlantic review and transition, under the title "fragments from Work in Progress". The actual title of the work remained a secret until the book was published in its entirety, on 4 May 1939. Initial reaction to Finnegans Wake, both in its serialized and final published form, was largely negative, ranging from bafflement at its radical reworking of the English language to open hostility towards its lack of respect for the conventions of the novel.
The work has since come to assume a preeminent place in English literature, despite its numerous detractors. Anthony Burgess has praised the book as "a great comic vision, one of the few books of the world that can make us laugh aloud on nearly every page." Harold Bloom called the book "Joyce's masterpiece", and wrote that "[if] aesthetic merit were ever again to center the canon [Finnegans Wake] would be as close as our chaos could come to the heights of Shakespeare and Dante." In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Finnegans Wake 77th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
Finnegans Wake is a difficult text, and it has been noted that Joyce would not have aimed it at the general reader; however, certain aspects of the work have made an impact on popular culture beyond the awareness of it being difficult.
In the academic field, physicist Murray Gell-Mann named a type of subatomic particle as a quark, after the phrase "Three quarks for Muster Mark" on page 383 of Finnegans Wake, as he already had the sound "kwork". was taken from a passage in Finnegans Wake. According to the official company history of the popular blogging tool WordPress, their name was invented by Christine Selleck in March 2003, whereas James Joyce first uses this word in Finnegans Wake p. 20, l. 9. The work of Marshall McLuhan was greatly inspired by James Joyce, especially referencing Finnegans Wake throughout the collage book War and Peace in the Global Village.