I have always wanted to read this book. I tried reading it six years ago, fresh out of college. I never made it past Chapter III, when Stephen wipes his boogers off on a rock. Now, I have finally read it completely, for a class in graduate school. To be said (again) in a Frodo-like gasp: “It is….. DONE! It is…….. accomplished!!!!”
I hated this book so, so, so much at first. I hated how many allusions and references there were. Songs, Irish myths, Irish history, the Greeks, Shakespeare, Aristotle’s poetics, Spinoza… it made me feel like a freaking idiot. I hated the fact that Joyce himself said ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality!‘ (I can just hear his evil laughter, echoing off the pub walls. Like the most pretentious graduate student that ever lived.)
I hated how Stephen’s chapters were so utterly dense. Sample opening sentence from Chapter III: Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. OMG!
I hated the fact that I constantly couldn’t understand basic things that were going on–like, where are they talking. Or, who is this character. Or how did Bloom get here, and why. The one thing I will ever #humblebrag about is that I am a FAST reader. But it would take me 1 1/2 – 2 hours to read ONE chapter in this book. For me, that is really. freaking. slow. And it was mainly because I was constantly having to reread whole paragraphs, flip back to remember where I was or even look things up to make sure I understood (the more of the book I read, though, the easier it got, which is important to note. But I think that’s mainly due to me accepting that I didn’t have to understand EVERYTHING).
Most of all, I hated, hated the fact that my book of Ulysses annotations was bigger than Ulysses itself. ‘Forget this,’ I kept thinking. ‘I thought good writing was all about CLARITY and UNDERSTANDING. What’s the point of a book that you basically need an Internet guide in order to understand? What does that say about the relationship between artist and audience? If this is a book about the epic in the everyday, what does it mean that the ‘everyday’ person would never even bother to attempt reading this book because doing so takes TREMENDOUS effort and is such a giant effing pain in the butt?’.
But you know what? People are right. The effort is worth it. Now that I’ve read the whole thing, if someone were to ask me (as indeed they have) oh, Ulysses, so what do you think of it? My automatic, not-even-thinking-about-it response has consistently been I love it. I ****ing hated it so much at first, but now I really, really love it.
So what’s up with that? Have I been brainwashed? Is it just Stockholm syndrome? WHAT IS GOING ON?
I came up with three reasons for why I changed my mind.
Reason Number One: Bloom is an amazing character. Deep, complex, complicated. Joyce deserves a LOT of credit for creating a character we care about this much. When the rest of the text gets really messed up and crazy (as in the infamous Sirens, Cyclops, Oxen of the Sun and Circe (!!!) episodes… heck during the majority of the book’s 2nd half)… Bloom is a rock, our anchor, our epic hero. He is weak and full of flaws. He hasn’t slept with his wife in ten years, oggles a young girl on a beach while masturbating and fantasizes about turning into a woman (specifically a masochistic sex slave). He is extremely passive (apart from his applause-worthy outbreak in the ‘Cyclops’ chapter, when addressing an anti-Semitic racist). He is constantly hungry (this, more than anything else, is maybe what made me relate to him most). He has a tremendous sense of empathy (this is quality #2 that made me dig him), especially when compared to everyone else around him. He is extremely intelligent, yet painfully sincere. “Force, hatred, history, all that,” he says at one point. “That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.” Well, what is life then, his friend asks, and Bloom answers thusly: “Love.” When compared to Stephen–who is SO well-educated in terms of esoteric knowledge–Bloom comes off as a wise hippie guru. Is that what Stephen and Bloom are ultimately supposed to be? Ying and yang? Do they represent two different types of knowledge and understanding–Stephen the knowledge gained from university, Bloom the truth gained from everyday, lived, walking-in-the-streets experience?
In terms of plot and resolution, Bloom’s epic day ends with few signs that anything in the future will change for him–will he continue to be friends with Stephen? Will he continue letting Molly cheat on him? What will Bloom end up doing with his life? Is he one of those (to quote the book) “cultured fellows that promised so brilliantly, nipped in the bud of premature decay and nobody to blame but themselves?” Is Bloom a failure we’re supposed to admire? Is Ulysses itself a failure we’re supposed to admire? WHO KNOWS? These key questions are left unresolved, and yet the book is still (God help me) incredibly satisfying. For such an untraditional book, it has a very traditional base: good characters I gave a shit about and with whom I enjoy spending time with.
Reason Number Two: This lecture by Ali Smith. Have I said yet how much I love Ali Smith? Anyway, this lecture she gave some time ago made SO much sense to me. And not because she says Joyce would make a great tweeter. After reading this, it’s suddenly like I get the connection between one of my favorite contemporary English-language authors and Joyce: the playfulness. The parody. The obsession with words and their meanings. The concentration on style and form. The importance of taking risks. This lecture, more than anything, is what helped flip the switch in my brain and ease me (however reluctantly) in the pro-Joyce section of the bleachers.
Reason Number Three: If I could pinpoint a specific part in the text where my feelings of pure loathing started to change, I think it would be Book 10–the Wandering Rocks episode, in which Joyce narrates a series of short vignettes, following a group of different characters around Dublin. If this were a film sequence, it’d be something akin to Amelie or Run Lola Run: fancy camerawork zooming in and out, the same moment seen repeatedly from different angles. It was…. pretty darn cool. I don’t know if at this point I become sympathetic towards my captor (see aforementioned Stockholm syndrome). But all of a sudden… I WAS INTO IT. I was digging it SO MUCH. The weirder the chapters got, the more I loved them (or maybe it was just the lack of Stephen’s interior monologues, lol). I loved the parodies (even when I couldn’t understand them). The reckless bravery. The invention. The hallucinogenic, bad LSD trip feeling of ‘Circe’ in which literally anything can and does happen. The capriciousness with which Joyce seems to be saying SCREW EVERYTHING IMMA WRITE WAT I WANT, OH WOW LOOK WHAT I AM DOING HERE THAT SURE IS NUTS.
Suddenly, I am no longer one of those annoying fans, weakly saying ‘but Dubliners is sooo good’ (WHICH IT IS). Instead, I finally understand what Joyce wanted to do with Ulysses in contrast to his previous work: ‘want my old ****, buy my old album.’ This is his Blueprint, his Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Ulysses is a book where the artist is throwing everything to the wind and producing dangerously unreadable chaos, and the result is bloody, dark, and beautiful.
Ultimately, what it boils down to is that I’d rather live in a world where books like Ulysses are written, with all their flaws and annoyances and imperfections, than a world where books are not. I’d choose style, invention, imagination, recklessness and utter failure over perfection, craft, beauty and success any day. I choose blood and semen stains on bedsheets and Bloom jacking off on a beach. This is a book that is both reluctant and fearful of sentimentality, yet unafraid to embrace it wholeheartedly when necessary (as when Bloom glimpses a vision of his long-dead son at the end of Book 15, or with the aforementioned “Love” quote). It is a book that belongs to the Green Party and volunteers for immigrants’ rights groups. It ponders the universe, eats food with gusto, farts loudly with even more gusto and wholeheartedly believes in the possibility of art to Redeem All (while still simultaneously raising a dubious eyebrow).
In the end, to me this became a book about craving life. “Damn death,” it even cries out in Book 15, via Stephen: “long live life!” Is it any wonder that the last word in the book is “Yes“? BRING IT ON, it might as well be saying. All of it…. all the pain and the guts and the glory. JUST BRING IT. In reference to Molly’s infamous monologue–I can’t remember the last time I read a passage that literally brought tears to my eyes. In the end, Bloom wins, Molly wins, multiculturalism wins, life wins.
This book is good not because it’s an amazingly well-crafted classic. It’s good because it’s a fucking glorious mess.
“Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.” (Chapter 9, pg. 204)