Something stays a reader’s hand when he reaches for a dusty copy of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Maybe it’s the lack of quotation marks. Or the run-on sentences. Or the Dublin street slang. Or the frequent absence of plot, narrators, logic, or any trappings of what might be called a story. Or a vocabulary that would challenge the most self-assured SAT scholar. (“Scortatory,” anyone? How about “monoideal?”)
Or it could be the fussy, rag-and-bone- shop references to the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Irish myth, and Irish colonial history juxtaposed with graphic depictions of sex acts that outdo the most shocking Internet pornography.
But should a brave soul muster the confidence to plow through Joyce’s tour de force, three things become clear: (1) what some call the greatest novel ever written in English is darned hard to get through; (2) Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us makes it much easier, and (3) neither is required reading.
Kiberd, whose politicized “Inventing Ireland” offered a refreshing take on Irish lit as the product of English colonialism, is aware of the alleged masterpiece’s shortcomings. “A book which set out to celebrate the common man and woman endured the sad fate of never being read by most of them,” he writes, bemoaning the ivory-tower cult of Joyce specialists that herd together at symposiums “like reforming alcoholics.”
But “Ulysses” is the story of one average man – Leopold Bloom, a Jewish newspaper ad salesman – living one average day in turn-of-the-century Dublin. If Joyce so successfully evoked that day’s epic ordinariness, why doesn’t every soccer hooligan recognize the genius of his hefty tome? “[Joyce] acted on the brazen assumption that his book would not defer to the current taste of the public but serve to invent a new sort of reader,” Kiberd claims, “someone who after that experience might choose to live in a different way.”
One wants to embrace this optimistic thesis – the idea that art changes lives. Unfortunately, the conventional lit-crit Kiberd trots out in its defense undermines his hope that Joyce’s very difficult book will appeal to anyone not writing a dissertation about it.
Kiberd’s failure is, at least, well organized. “Ulysses and Us” is divided into 18 sections that mirror the 18 episodes of Joyce’s novel that, in turn, reflect the structure of Homer’s myth. Since Joyce refused to split “Ulysses” into conventional chapters, one is never sure where one is in his complex allegory, so Kiberd’s road map is essential (even if, maddeningly, the page numbers he cites didn’t match my edition of “Ulysses”).
So, faced with an incomprehensible swath of exposition known as “Wandering Rocks,” Kiberd explains that Joyce, influenced by the perspective play of Cubist painters, wanted to “focus on peripheral characters, each of whom might have been central in a different kind of book.” Or, explaining the interminable “Ithaca” Q-and-A between Leopold and Stephen Dedalus, the listless writer Joyce introduced in “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,” Kiberd points to the Roman Catholic catechism, whose “finicky precision of language and the methods used seem almost scientific in the steady elimination of falsehood until you got to the truth.”
But just because a journey comes with a set of directions doesn’t mean the trip’s worth taking. Consider Kiberd on “Circe,” the most challenging section in “Ulysses” – a tedious, incomprehensible “dream play” featuring dozens of characters engaged in nonsensical action. In “Circe,” Joyce puts his protagonist in an absurd situation to reveal what a conventional narrative cannot – not unlike, say, the scene in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” where Pee-wee dances to “Tequila.” Here’s Kiberd’s take: “The aim, in Joyce as in Shakespeare, is to extend the feeling of reality into a purely fictional construction; and by so doing to offer a social rather than private analysis of repression.”
Any cabdrivers still with us? It’s this kind of interpretation – a humorless, psychological reading poorly explained with a punishing sentence that self-satisfiedly sports a semicolon – that ruin what little Joyce’s novel might offer us plebes. If Kiberd’s building a democratic “Ulysses,” he doesn’t ask the right questions. If Freudian analysis has been discredited, why is Joyce’s phallus-forested prose still relevant? If classic myths have been displaced by film archetypes – if more people are familiar with the
Transformers than the Argonauts – why should a 21st-century reader bother with a creaky, 100-year-old retelling of a thrice-told tale? If there is an “us” in “Ulysses,” where is it? Does this emperor have any clothes?
Before Joyce died of a stomach ulcer in 1941, he uttered seven sad syllables: “Does nobody understand?” As “Ulysses” – an unlikely candidate for Oprah’s Book Club – disappears from college syllabuses, academics like Kiberd rush to explain and reexplain its importance.
They should rest easy – with a little effort, we can understand “Ulysses.” We’re just not sure if we need to.
Justin Moyer is a freelance book reviewer in Washington, D.C.