Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Finnegans Wake Billboards in China

Billboard in China promoting Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake.
(Photo credit: Ng Han Guan, AP)

Right around the time of James Joyce's birthday (February 2nd) this year the newswires were all buzzing about Finnegans Wake. The first-ever Chinese translation of Joyce's notoriously opaque masterpiece sold out of its first 8,000 copies in China after a big advertising campaign helped spread the word around.

There are so many strange things about this story, but this part is my favorite:
The book, widely considered Joyce's most experimental and inscrutable work, was promoted by an unusual billboard campaign in major Chinese cities — with 16 of them in Shanghai alone. The official Xinhua News agency said it was the first time a book had been promoted that way in China.
There were 16 billboards throughout Shanghai (in the 21st Century) ADVERTISING A NEW EDITION OF FINNEGANS WAKE.

This is something out of an alternate universe, a hilarious Joycean oddity just like the other recent bit of Joyce news.

What's so funny about this is that Finnegans Wake is filled with advertisements and references to advertising, starting with the second page: "the skysign of soft advertisement!" The key role of advertising is made clear on page 181 where there's an ad referring to Joyce himself, sounding like a a hilarious parody of a singles ad on Craigslist:
[Jymes wishes to hear from wearers of abandoned female costumes, gratefully received, wadmel jumper, rather full pair of culottes and onthergarmenteries, to start city life together. His jymes is out of job, would sit and write. He has lately commited one of the then commandments but she will now assist. Superior built, domestic, regular layer. Also got the boot. He appreciates it. Copies. ABORTISEMENT.]
Joyce was very aware of the growing industry of advertising and how important it would become in modern society. His most famous character, Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, was an advertisement canvasser by trade and throughout his daily musings he ponders creative ad ideas and "the infinite possibilities hitherto unexploited of the modern art of advertisement."

I can't find any academic studies of the importance of advertising in Joyce's work so it's certainly something to look deeper into. Maybe sometime down the road I'll take a crack at exploring it more fully. Leaving aside Bloom's myriad advertising thoughts, the Wake alone is absolutely flooded with ads (just like pop-up ads, since the Wake is after all a lengthy premonition of the web surfing experience). The FWEET search engine shows 63 different references to advertising that you can look at and I'm sure they've barely scratched the surface.

For now I'm still soaking in the surreal nature of the Finnegans Wake billboard campaign in China.


  1. Cool, but that guy is pointing the wrong way.

  2. Thanks for posting this. Best news I've heard in a long time!

  3. Glad to hear it, znore! Pretty damn surreal, ain't it?