Lots of Fun with "Finnegans Wake"

A look at how Peter O'Brien has turned Joyce's masterpiece into an artistic odyssey...

Peter O’Brien has been reading Finnegans Wake for over four decades. It is a book considered by many to be a difficult read, but O’Brien has found a unique way of making it more accessible — he uses the pages of the book to create unique illustrations that evoke a new sense of understanding of the text. People often have trouble with understanding great works of literature, but with O’Brien’s art, this difficulty is greatly diminished.

The project provides O’Brien with a creative outlet to combine his love of words and illustration — it’s nothing less than an intelligent, mixed media adventure! We asked Peter to kindly provide us with some background information about his project that might be of interest to our readers — we truly hope you enjoy the selection of works featured below (presented in large format) and find them as riveting as we have... But first, a little bit of background about the artist and their art by Peter himself:

I was born in New York in 1957. My dad died when I was not yet two, and my mom was left a widow with ten kids. Eight years later, she married a widower who had twelve kids, which made me one of twenty-two kids! There are a lot of contradictory, sometimes combative stories in a family that size. Maybe that is why I am so fascinated with the conflicting and incongruous tumult of stories in James Joyce’s final work, Finnegans Wake.

It was forty-two years ago, and I was in Dublin when I first began reading Finnegans Wake. It is possible to tire of other books, but not this one. It is the most labyrinthine and arcane book and artwork ever created.

Most readers of the book write personal or exegetical notes in the margins, or other forms of marginalia anywhere they can. I decided to create an artwork by custom printing each page, with more space between the lines, and with larger margins. Initially, I started writing my notes and annotations with coloured felt pens but then I started using other media, including graphite, gold leaf, archival glitter glue that I made myself, gel pens, acrylic paint, oil pastels, and various other found objects, including bodily fluids and humours.

I also started painting on the pages: trees, birds, rivers, pieces of plastic, drinking vessels and bowls, and well, the number of things keeps growing. I do suffer from a form of horror vacui, so that does not help (or maybe it does help, depending on how you want to interpret such an aesthetic affliction). I am always adding new details to pages that I thought I had finished three or four years ago.

Being arithmetically inclined, I have decided to see if I can finish this 628-page project in ten years. I’m 44% of the way through, so I still have a long way to go. I know that no one will ever read all my markings (all the words I have written on these pages, all the graphic elements I layer on), and I am fine with that. Most people never read the entire text of Finnegans Wake, so I would be especially delusional if I assumed someone, anyone, will ever read every work, and consider every mark I’ve articulated in this expansive and unwieldy literary folly I call: LOTS OF FUN WITH FINNEGANS WAKE.’

I would drop this project in a moment if I ever become bored with what Joyce was trying to accomplish. He compressed the entire world into a book (a space where different versions of history, culture, language, and belief are constantly in conflictual conversation) and so it’s unlikely I’ll be getting bored with his book or this artwork. In fact, I am already fabricating in my senses a new project with Finnegans Wake, but that is for about five and half years in the future.

For more information, and to see more of Peter’s artwork, please visit:


“One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” –James Joyce commenting on Finnegans Wake

Peter O’Brien has written or edited eight books, including A Perfect Offering: Personal Stories of Trauma and Transformation (Mosaic), Introduction to Literature: British, American, Canadian (Harper & Row), and Cleopatra at the Breakfast Table: Why I Studied Latin With My Teenager and How I Discovered the Daughterland (Quattro). He attended Notre Dame (BA), McGill (MA), the Banff School of Fine Arts, and has published extensively on writing and art. He is currently working on a ten-year art project entitled, LOTS OF FUN WITH FINNEGANS WAKE.

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