I see the entirety of Western literature as something hung like Japanese lanterns between two books, two poles: Tarō Gomi’s 1977 classic Everyone Poops on one end and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake on the other.
The former is blunt, pure, and initiatory, the essence of the mammalian contract. It situates the human being in nature with no special exemptions and out clauses. Mortality, never mentioned, invests the book with urgency and philosophical depth, for if it poops, it dies. If you’re exposed to Everyone Poops early enough, maybe you’ll enjoy a lifetime of accepting your body and its destiny, steering mostly clear of the vast, fetid Freudian swamp of the mind-body split.
Finnegans Wake, on the other hand, comes straight from the teeming crevice of the mind-body split, a very high temperature demonstration of how kooky it can get in the mind of someone who struggles to accept his own sin-freighted body.
Powered by polylingual puns, shapeshifting characters who can be anyone at any time, and narrative schema exactly as complex as world history, The Wake killed modernism simply by setting the bar way, way in outer space.
There was, and there remains, nowhere further to go. Finnegans Wake is the hardest book. It won. Even his champions and fellow modernists like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound felt Joyce had gone too far with The Wake, much of which was dictated to Joyce’s personal assistant, Samuel Beckett.
Like everyone over the age of 30 or so, I encountered Everyone Poops only as a parent. It was too late for me to absorb its natural fact. I’ve never read Finnegans Wake, but I have looked at every word in it, in order.
Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.