By James Joyce, 1922
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
A theory for you: there’s not a Joyce fan alive who loves every chapter of Ulysses. You’d have to either be an insane frothing-at-the-mouth James Joyce freak who worships every word the man writes or have the broadest literary tastes ever to do so, since every chapter is famously written in a radically different style. It’s mainly known for stream-of-consciousness, but that technique only enters in a few chapters and is more fully explored in Joyce’s first and most conventional novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The famous Molly Bloom monolog, which runs three sentences across a whole chapter and is mostly responsible for the obscenity charges leveled against the novel, epitomizes that style, but elsewhere, Joyce gets his point across through whatever he can think of – an absurdist play, a parody of romance magazines, and a series of newspaper headlines all factor in; the lunchtime portion is written via many a food metaphor; the first chapter, meant to signify the start of the day, is penned in deliberately simple language to parallel just how hard it is to wake up sometimes; styles of author after author are parodied and paid homage.
Everyone knows the setup, but I feel remiss not to mention it: using Homer’s Odyssey as his springboard, Joyce tells the story of two somewhat eccentric Dubliners, Stephen Daedalus (he of Portrait fame) and Leopold Bloom (he of Bloomsday fame), as they go about a more or less ordinary day. Realism had already come and portrayed the ordinary on ordinary terms, but Ulysses portrays the ordinary in madcap terms. Joyce doesn’t even pretend to portray objective reality here, preferring to let his characters’ perceptions and subconscious take over, with no shortage of jokes, irreverence, and wicked wordplay. This novel has a reputation of being hard to read, and that’s probably got a lot to do with just how dense and dizzying it is; besides dumping experiences at you and switching styles so fast it’s impossible to sink into, it’s also stuffed to the brim with allusions you might not even catch (I’m sure there are many I don’t understand, since I lack Joyce’s exhaustive classical education) and in places more concerned with words’ sound than their meaning.
So how do you read Ulysses? Well, for one, it’s funny. If you appreciate Joyce’s knack for the absurd, and I sure do, you’ll have a great time with this. For another, the language is gorgeous. Not just in its sophisticated rhythm, but in its pure sound; “Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home” is a particular heartbreaker, as is “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” But the real trick to appreciating Ulysses comes from just accepting that you won’t understand all of it and going wherever Joyce takes you. He’s the one who’s driving, he’s got his destination in mind, and he’s on his way there regardless of what you might do or say to the contrary. So forget about understanding everything. Just lie back and enjoy the ride, because it’s unlike any other ride you’ve ever taken.