This chapter appears to be what can only be described as a character assassination of Shem the penman, who is the son of our hero Here Comes Everybody. The narrator is his brother, a man whose name I haven’t quite worked out but he seems unusually concerned about the post. He isn’t keen on Shem at all and goes to great lengths to tell us why. He might well be jealous of his brother, who is either highly thought of or at least boasts that he is. But he has a dark and hidden past.
We begin with a physical description of Shem, which doesn’t do him any favours. He has a skull, ‘an eight of a larkseye’, a nose, one numb arm, 43 hairs on his head and 18 on his lip, (which is surprisingly specific), three chins, his left shoulder is higher than the right, ‘an artificial tongue with a natural curl’, no feet, a handful of thumbs, a blind stomach and deaf heart, a loose liver, two fifths of two buttocks and a ‘manroot of evil’. The less said about the manroot the better, I think, but the bit about the tongue is very clever.
When he was a child, Shem posed the first riddle of the universe to his siblings, which is ‘When is a man not a man?’ Whoever solves the riddle wins a bittersweet crab, so it is clearly worth some consideration. I lost count of how many siblings are involved but there are a great many rambling and obscure replies that cover just about everything from zombies to prostitutes. When the randomness is finally exhausted, Shem refuses to reveal the answer. Which is bloody annoying.
There then follows a fairly vicious account of Shem’s life and his brother portrays him as a drunk, drug addict, gambler, plagiarist and pervert. It seems he is also fond of tinned salmon, tinned pineapple and all manner of foul-sounding food and drink. There is a tale about everyone in town being slaughtered by attackers, while Shem cowardly hides in his house. He also writes bad plays and forges cheques – and wrote an unreadable book – ‘…to read his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles…’ which his brother seems particularly annoyed about.
This is not the first reference to Joyce’s other work, Ulysses, in this book and it got me thinking. Ulysses took place over the course of one day (June 16th, in fact) following the mundane activities of Leopold Bloom. Finnegans Wake – where nothing is real, time is irrelevant and persons are uncertain – is very much like a dreamscape and could quite possibly be the single night’s delusions of some unknown sleeper. Maybe it will be like Dallas and at some point we will be told that it’s all been a dream. But anyway.
The insults continue with aplomb and he is described variously as a tragic jester, Shem the evilsmeller, a blasphemer, a loan shark and as a man who has lived the high life and ended up in debt. He is advised to take some kind of medicine to cure him of these ills:
‘It does marvels for your gripins and it’s fine for the solitary worm’
The chapter closes with the arrival of Shem’s mother, Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP – wife of HCE) who, after some deliberation and general weeping over her sons’ arguing, describes herself as a river and sets about defending Shem. We end with these lines, which could mean anything:
‘He lifts the life wand and the dumb speak.
Other things of note:
On 6th October the Fickle Crowd killed a king.
Shem’s brother insists that he take a job, but he won’t tell him what the job is, where it is or what time to turn up, only that it involves ‘certain agonising office hours’.
No one dares whiff the polecat at close range.
We are urged to visit Johns Butchers – he used to be a baker, his liver is good value and we are invited to feel his lambs.
He asks Nayman of Noland to make him laugh.
Apart from the fact that the narrator is not a fan of his brother Shem, I haven’t picked up anything useful. This chapter has some great descriptive passages and wanders into CS Lewis territory with its beautiful poetic nonsense. Once again Joyce mocks himself by making reference to an ‘unreadable book’ and I have an inkling that the references to Ulysses are somehow relevant. Could this be a sequel?
‘…and all that has been done has yet to be done and done again,’
Just in case we were in any doubt as to the circular nature of the book, here is a nice little quote to reassure us.
‘Oft in the smelly night will they wallow for a clutch of the famished hand, I say, them bearded jezabelles you hired to rob you, while on your sodden straw impolitely you encored’
It’s nice to know that one can hire bearded jezabelles, should one need them.
‘Shem was a sham and a low sham and his lowness creeped out first via foodstuffs.’
You can tell a lot about a man from his diet, apparently.