All you need to read Ulysses…

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I am a few days late for the June 16 celebration of Bloomsday, the date when James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place, but a piece in the Economist’s Prospero blog was too entertaining to pass up.

In the post, a friend of the author argues there are two kinds of readers–those who have read Ulysses and those who haven’t. I would disagree. The mere act of reading Ulysses doesn’t divide us. Though Joyce is praised in academia, he isn’t quotable and his characters never became universal icons. Think of how many times in a year you see allusions to Heart of DarknessAnimal Farm, and Pride and Prejudice. 

Ulysses? Not so much. 

The division comes, I’d say, rather among those who do read Ulysses; between those who stumble to the last page with a smile, and those who throw the book away in disgust.

I’ve read Ulysses a couple times and enjoyed it, but I don’t take offense when people confess they hated it. On the contrary, I think it is perfectly understandable to dislike Joyce. His fixation on Irish politics, Dublin’s geography, and Catholic upbringings will elicit yawns from folks who don’t relate. I remember suffering through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and thinking This is what most people think of Joyce: Well done, but a little overdone…

Even for the legion of Irish and Irish-Americans keen on digesting a national treasure, the challenges of Ulysses can cause them to balk. What other novel requires several dense and expensive resource guides to get through? (Well, I can think of a few…)

But if you buck up and hunker down, reading Ulysses to the end never results in a neutral reaction. Very, very few books live up to the old cliche “It’s not a novel, it’s an experience.” Ulysses is undeniably one of them. You don’t actually read it, you try to solve it.

Maybe the best argument I can make for why it is worth the effort, is that Ulysses can be fun. Compared with other cold and soulless epics, Joyce is often genuinely sweet. One of my favorite small moments is when our hero, Leopold Bloom, gently tells a rude acquaintance, John Henry Menton, that there’s a dent in his hat.

John Henry Menton jerked his head down in acknowledgment.

– Thank you, he said shortly.

They walked on towards the gates. Mr Bloom, chapfallen, drew behind a few paces so as not to overhear…

Oyster eyes. Never mind. Be sorry after perhaps when it dawns on him. Get the pull over him that way.

Thank you. How grand we are this morning.

I love how Menton’s gruff “thank you” makes Bloom smirk, “My how grand we are this morning!” These throwaways are totally absent from most “difficult” fiction.

But unlike most other novels, you shouldn’t go Ulysses alone. As Prospero notes in his blog

…all you really need is a clean, well-lit room of one’s own, a copy of “Ulysses”, Don Gifford’s “Ulysses Annotated”, Harry Blamires’s “The New Bloomsday Book” for chapter summaries, Joseph Campbell for some colour commentary, and some spare time.

That’s all, huh?

The funny thing is, he’s right. I have seen folks read Ulysses “naked,” i.e., without supportive texts. I really wonder what they are getting out of it. Can you follow along? Sure, to a degree. But reading Ulysses without some support is bound to cause frustration. The lengthy discussions about Shakespeare and Dublin’s geography and history don’t make much sense without the right background.

So what about those folks who read through to the end and are unsatisfied? A classic criticism of Ulysses is that it is clever for clever’s sake. Showing off one’s education these days is bad form.

Please.

Who benefits from a culture that applauds mediocrity? Why should we be encouraged to read books that are downright crap (or as one writer called it poorly written erotic fan-fiction”)?

I am the first to admit I like Ulysses in spite of myself. I don’t like it because I am in on the joke. I don’t like it because it makes me feel smart. On the contrary, no other book has ever made me feel so dim-witted. I have spent several afternoons frustrated as hell as I tried to figure out that most notorious of chapters, Oxen of the Sun. That’s the one that begins

Send us bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit. Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa!

Not exactly Dick and Jane.

But we should never approach Ulysses as a sort of application to the Mensa Society. It’s more like that old computer classic Myst. The fun is in the unpuzzling. If we dismiss Ulysses because it is a showcase of erudition, then we’re at fault. Bemoaning its brilliance fails to amount to much beyond “too many notes.”

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