Monday, September 25, 2006

No More Joyce!

I was thinking I'd do a post about the perception of reality in Ulysses, and compare it to some other works, mostly stuff by Philip K. Dick, but man, I'm getting tired of this shit. I want to move on to some other book, some other writer. I'm thinking of either The Brothers Karamozov, or Don Quixote, or The Heart of the Matter. I'm leaning toward Heart, simply because it's short. What I'll do is go over what I'm reading from time to time, let you all know how it's going, let you in on what I think of said book, and so on.

However, I'm not married to those three books. If you have any suggestions, let me know. If I have it at my library or in my apartment, I'll give it a shot.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Last time, I wrote a reeeally long post about Ulysses. I'm not going to do that this time. But I am going to talk about Ulysses again. In this case, the Modern Library named it the best book of the 20th Century, if not the best book of all time. Is that the case?

Well, to be honest, I don't know. I'm not exactly in a position to influence anything, other than those who read this post. And I'm pretty sure the people at the Modern Library aren't exactly dropping by too often.

Ulysses is a tough book. Joyce goes all over the place to tell his story. Part of the novel is told in newspaper headlines. Another part in the form of a script. He changes points of view, sometimes to characters who are never named, and who are not in the action before or after their moment in the sun, as it were. It's incredible, and sometimes the text just sings. Sometimes literally. There are two places where there is music.

I haven't read anything like this. I skimmed through Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, and his experiments don't seem to be as effective as Joyces. Where Foer sometimes obscures text (the words run together until the page goes black), Joyce never tries to hide what he's saying. He just sometimes make you work for the meaning.

I read Parade's End by Ford Maddox Ford, one of Joyce's contemporaries, and while Ford certainly puts the reader through the motions, it's nothing on the level on which Joyce is working (blogger's note: I loved Parade's End moreso than Ulysses, but not by a lot.) Even Faulker was playing around with language, but I'm thinking they're still in two different leagues.

The difference between Joyce and his contemporaries is this: Joyce took more risks.

I think that's it, really, and years after his death, he's being rewarded for it.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

I promised that I would post today, and I will. I also promised that I would post a huge review/critique of Ulysses. Well, I’m not going to do that. I’m at work, and I actually have to show some effort today, even if my computer won’t. What I am going to do is start the critique. I’m going to give my impression of the book itself, and I’m going to try citing Sean Joyce from a New Yorker article about how he handles the Joyce estate. So bear with me.

Okay, here we go:
I finished Ulysses on September 11, 2006. When I started reading it back in February, I promised that I would read at least five pages a day, every day, until I was finished. My copy, published by Vintage, is 783 pages long. So I would be done in roughly 157 days. That’s about five months and one week. Well, I cut back to five days a week, though I did manage to stick to reading at least five pages a day. Hey, some days I did 10. I always read in multiples of five, until I got to the last section where Molly takes over the narration, where I read a sentence a day for eight days. More on this later.

Bear in mind, also, that I read most of Ulysses while coming home from work. I work in lower Manhattan. I live in Queens. I take the E-train to and from work most days. It is on the E-train where I read Ulysses. So this is the critique of a casual reader. I’m not some scholar, hidden away in a quiet library, or some nook, poring over each and every word or sentence, parsing meaning out of the text like some brainiac. I’m just some yahoo on the subway, usually around 5 or 6 p.m., with my head stuffed in a book.

To begin:
Ulysses follows a day in the life of Leopold Bloom. That day is June 16, 1904, to be specific. A lot happens to Bloom and his friends, but nothing more than you’d expect from a regular day. Over the course of what I figure is 24 hours, Bloom wakes up, takes a shit, eats breakfast, goes to a funeral, hangs out with his friends, reads a letter from a lover of his, hangs out with more friends, flirts with and masturbates to a young woman he meets at the beach, takes Stephen Dedalus (whom we all should know from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) to a whore house, then to a coffee shop, then home. And that’s it. Nothing much out of the ordinary happens, per se, but then, it’s just a day in the life.

Or, that’s basically it.

Now, you’d figure it’s just a day in the life, so it ought to be easy to read. Well, this is Ulysses, and Ulysses has a reputation for being a hard read, a reputation only partly earned. It would be more accurate to say that there are sections of Ulysses that are hard to read, and there are sections that simply fly by, most notably one of the latter parts of the book which is written like a play. Easiest five pages-a-day I read. But then there are sections that are simply blocks of text.

But this isn’t any harder than, say, Crime and Punishment, or The Inferno, and it’s certainly easier than Don Quixote. If you’ve made it through any of those – or any novel by Tolstoy, or Faulkner, or any of those guys – then you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting through anything by Joyce. Except maybe Finnegan’s Wake, but I haven’t read that yet, so I can’t really comment.

I haven’t read all of Don Quixote either, but you get the point.
In a New Yorker article, Sean Joyce, James’ grandson, is said to have found his grandfather’s work “not only readable, but appealingly human.”
“As I got older, I realized Joyce is not the difficult writer they say he is,” Sean is quoted as saying in the article. “When [scholars] say, ‘We’ve done so much for him,’ I think, What about the thousands, not to say millions, of readers they scared off? All this crap they write—that’s good old American slang!”

And he’s right for the most part. These characters are appealingly human, because they think about things we all think about, feel things we all feel, and so on. What’s amazing – or what should at least be acknowledged – is that no one really attempted this kind of thing before. If I’m wrong, and someone other than Joyce did this in a novel, let me know.

This kind of thing is taken for granted now. Stream of consciousness is common, if not a staple, in today’s literature. Honesty about what people really think, about what people really do – hell, who doesn’t write about that? Depictions of some guy sitting on the toilet, taking a shit and wiping with newspaper? Well, okay, not so often.

One area where some readers might be put off would be in Joyce’s vocabulary. I have to admit, it’s rather daunting. I read somewhere – and I’ll try to find out where... okay, I probably won’t – that Joyce used 40,000 different words to compose his novel. I think that’s above the average range for most people’s vocabularies, but if you’re willing to use one of the larger dictionaries out there, you can get through it. Hell, I made it through without, just took the words in context, deconstructed them with what little Latin I remember, and I did all right.

But I think more than vocabulary, simple construction is the most daunting part of Ulysses. What I mean is how Joyce put those sentences together to tell the story. There are literally pages where it’s one big block of text. The text itself isn’t difficult in and of itself, but the appearance of so much text – no matter what that text actually says - can be daunting.

I’ll also be the first to admit here that I had to sometimes re-read what I’d just gone over. There are radical shifts in tone, character POV, and in one or two cases, shifts in the sexuality of the pronouns in use. At least, I’m pretty sure. See, there’s a scene in a whore house where Bloom goes from “he” to “she,” and someone... how to put this delicately? Hmm. I don’t think there’s a way, but I’ll try. Someone gets elbow deep into his/her nether regions.

Delicate enough?

Right. Let’s move on.

The final roadblocks to making Ulysses an “easy” read would be the symbols and metaphors. I didn’t get half of what Joyce threw out there. I didn’t get references to officials and important people of his day. I probably didn’t get all the religious references. Hell, there were times when I didn’t get normal sentences, but as I said, I was reading it on the E-train in Manhattan, so what are you going to do, right?

Right, I’m done for now. I’ll write more later, because I have more to write. Was the Modern Library right in claiming that Ulysses was the best book of the 20th Century? Did I actually like it? Does it really matter? All this, and more, next time.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

I was going to devote my first blog to a light critique on James Joyce's Ulysses, but to be honest, it's the afternoon here in Kew Gardens, and it's raining, and I have to make Jambalaya. And I have to edit my novel. And I have to clean up. And about a thousand other things, too. So I'll write the critique when I actually have time, like when I'm at work.

But I want to give everyone who reads this - and I know there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of you - an idea of what to expect. You know, so you can be disappointed when I get lazy and stop really posting what I promise you here. This way, you'll have a solid list of things to bitch about. So, what I'm going to write about are things like the books I'm reading, the movies I've seen, and TV shows I watch with regularity. I'm probably not going to get too into my own personal life, especially my job. Why, you ask? Well, my job is so boring that someone fell asleep at their desk during an assignment. I shit you not. In fact, I want to take a nap right now just from typing this!

And I may not write that much about TV, mainly because - well, I watch a fair amount, but not much of it moves me. I don't have HBO, so you can probably understand why.

So, tomorrow, or maybe Sunday, I will have a critique of Ulysses, which I've just finished reading. I will try to write something substantial, something worth reading, something enjoyable if nothing.