Gerry Fialka’s literary detectives group is still on the case after 22 years

By Michael A. Reyes

James Joyce: author, genius, prankster
Illustration by Djuna Barnes

Scholars have said a lot about James Joyce’s 1939 novel “Finnegans Wake.”

Unreadable, fevered gibberish.

A linguistic Rorschach test.

The internet before the internet.

Once a month since 1995, Venice countercultural impresario Gerry Fialka and members of the Marshall McLuhan-Finnegans Wake Reading Club have gathered to unpack the mysteries and meanings of Western literature’s most impenetrable tome.

The group celebrates its 22nd anniversary on Oct. 3 during its regular first Tuesday of the month meeting at the Lloyd Taber-Marina del Rey Library. Up for discussion are pages 527 and 528.

Fialka, formerly an archivist and production assistant for Frank Zappa, says the club isn’t invested in the author’s intended meanings — that’s impossible to know for sure — but unwrapping various layers of meaning throughout. Dozens of languages mix with English, weaving a tapestry of religious, pop culture, literature and mass media references. Puns, riddles, songs, jokes and allusions surface every which way. The plot, of which arguably there is none, is circular.

“No ‘Finnegans Wake’ reading club is exclusively about ‘Finnegans Wake,’ because ‘Finnegans Wake’ is about everything,” Fialka declares.

Joyce spent 17 years writing the book during a wave of new media technology, and taps into notions of a somnambulistic populous, no longer attentive to their environments. One possible message of the book is “all you Finnegans wake the F up,” Fialka says. ““It’s about everything that happened and will happen.”

The club makes sense of this “everything” by viewing the work through the lens of philosopher Marshall McLuhan and his percepts of media ecology — the study of how media, technology and communication impact human environments.

“All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new form,’ says Fialka, quoting McLuhan.

To join the club, prospective members need only the curiosity to explore human inventions shaping environments and probing Joyce’s words for what they’re shaping. Once you check your assumptions at the door and commit to challenging your habits, the book becomes a fountain of information, says Derek Gibb, a member since 2004.

Participation is key, he says, because it takes a group to illuminate Joyce’s puzzling prose. Each member teaches the others, word by word, often finding meaning based on what pieces of themselves the reader finds in a given passage. As interpretations are made, every once in a while a member will blurt out “How do you know that?” and everyone laughs. Whether these new meanings are serviceable, isn’t the focus here; it’s about reaching a deeper understanding of people.

“Reading forms a community,” Fialka says. Again paraphrasing McLuhan, “The user is the content.”

The same goes for the many other events Fialka regularly hosts around town to explore experimental film, poetry, music or comedy. The discussion and what follows is as important as the art. His work is to build community, expanding knowledge from the fringes.

“It’s authentic underground L.A.,” says Gibb. “The possibilities are endless.”

 

The club’s next meeting is from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 3, in the Wenger Community Room at Lloyd Taber-Marina Del Rey Library, 4533 Admiralty Way, Marina del Rey. To connect with Fialka through an active metaphor, visit venicewake.wordpress.com.

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