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You kids get off my lawn. 

Ulysses - James Joyce Update: I've been trolled twice now on this review, and I'm going to take down my stars because I think it's like a red-flag to a certain kind of intellectual asshole. I've always been bothered by the rating-system, and this is perfect example of how radically imprecise that metric is. I don't care what these jerks think of me or my opinion, but I'm sick of people triggering off over a rating. I do believe I will try to read this again some day. I can't say the stars will change, but maybe I can help from getting trolled by irrational virgins again.

Second update: This update may be better undertaken after reading the review and several hundred of the comments below, but whatever. I wrote this review breezily and half-assedly, mostly as a note-to-self when I couldn't get more than 250 pages into this monster. I'll say this several times in the comments, should you choose to read them, but I have loved every single Joyce-thing that has come under my widdle eyeballs. But not this. I love forever the idea behinds Joyce's masterpiece, but for a cluster of personal reasons - one might even go so far as to say a clusterfuck of personal reasons - I could not manage finishing this book whenever several years ago I tried. There's a superimposition of possible Ceridwens who would have dug the crap out of this book - ringing the bells I have for Modernism, the reordering of heroic tropes, and puns about shitting. Alas, that Ceridwen didn't read this, but the one who watches too much tv and distracts easily. That's not the fault of Ulysses; that's the fault of post-modern Ceridwen. And I don't call Ulysses a "cult classic", I would just like to point out, that being the beginning of the dispute however many years ago. This is not a cult classic in any sense of the term.



I “finished” “reading” this about two weeks ago and have been grappling with the following question for the last fortnight: am I the kind of asshole who doesn't rate Ulysses? It turns out that yes, yes I am. From the very beginning, I struggled with the idea of meaning in Ulysses - due in part because of stupid blurbs like Anthony Burgess's on the back on my copy: “Everybody knows now that Ulysses is the greatest novel of the century.” Of course, this blurb is about as douche-baggy as it comes. “We” all “know” that this is the “greatest” novel, do we, “Anthony”? (Yes, I am aware that sarcasm is the refuge of the weak.) It may be stupid, but this quote does gesture to the common knowledge of this novel's occult status as one of the gnarliest books ever, the holy grail of really hard reads, the kind of thing to notch on your bedpost after its conquest. You won't take me, Ulysses, I''ll take you.

There's an implicit challenge in all of this critical jizz blown over Ulysses, one that I was willing to take on when my sister proposed we read this. We'll all go in together! It'll be fun! Nothing can stop us now! So I start reading, and I immediately start having a problem with the idea of meaning, but – this is the almost funny part – I had no idea how deep my trouble with meaning went. I hack my way through roughly 200 pages, and then decide its time to bust out my reader's guide, knowing full well that I'm so awesome that I don't really need it, and it'll just tell me that I'm awesome and then I can go back to reading. Alas, what it told me was that not only did I not get the billions of Classical references, something I was more or less prepared for, but that I didn't even get the simple, concrete meaning of the action. For example, I thought, when Stevie D was out walking on the quay, that there actually was a whale that some people were cutting up. Nope, this is some imagining into the past, a glimpse of ancient Ireland. Arg!

Not long after this confrontation with the edges of my entirely not-Classical education, one of my fellow readers send me this link. (Thanks Gary!) If you're not interested in popping out and watching this right now, I'll describe it: it's a Marx Brothers skit, in which Groucho is at the races, trying to determine which horse he should bet on. Harpo comes up, purportedly selling ice cream, but then he offers to sell Groucho a track guide. He does, but then it turns out he needs another book to read the first book, and then another to read that, on and on until he's given Harpo most of his money, and then bets on the wrong horse anyway. Ha, funny right? I would have to read an entire mountain of books to get what is up in Ulysses, and then, like the joke I just explained, I wonder if I would just be murdering to dissect, killing the punch line cold.

This is the thing: I'm not sure that this is what Joyce would want, not that I've ever given much credit to a writer's intent. Despite all the hand wringing I've been doing about Meaning, worrying about not “getting” the joke and all that, Ulysses itself is entirely, aggressively anti-Meaning, in the Classical, epic, heroic sense of the term. Nothing – and I mean nothing – is too base and low not to warrant his attention, not Bloom taking a leisurely morning crap while reading the paper, not having a shave, not bickering in a coach on the way to a funeral. It's the great anti-Epic. It may claim to be a novel, but the language has the luminous fracture of Modernist poetry, skimming along just outside of form in an almost self-conscious parody of itself. I suspect if I had a six thousand hour audiobook of this novel, I would have enjoyed it more, letting the words wash in their ebb and flow, and quit trying to catch fish out of the river. (Also, if Joyce had read it himself – he had a lovely voice.) The Epic creates heroes out of sociopaths – I'm looking at you Achilles. (Or the Devil in “Paradise Lost”, although I think probably poor Milton is rolling in his grave about what the Romantics did with his depiction of Old Scratch.) Ulysses doesn't just turn this upside down and create sociopaths out of heroes, but something weirder and more sly: he makes the banal unheroic. Which is what it was to begin with. Which kinds of makes my head hurt, but in the very best way.

This is just a bit a personal weirdness, but while I was reading, I kept thinking of this oddball story I was told once. Tom is a colleague of mine, and once, he was in the process of moving all of his stuff from one apartment to another. Everything he owned was all heaped in the back of his truck, held in by gravity and magic. He's on the freeway, and feels his stuff shift, and watches in horror as it slides off the back of the truck one piece at a time, spilling out onto the open road. As each item hits the pavement, it breaks into pieces, and those pieces roll and become smaller pieces, until almost everything he owns is strewn over a quarter mile of highway. He exits and doubles back around, and stands fishing out the few things that haven't been utterly destroyed by their recent bout with gravity and its consequences. He does this quickly, as he's pretty sure he's going to get some massive fine for being a litterbug if a State Trooper happens by. Reading Ulysses was for me like watching the English language fall off the back of the truck and break into a billion pieces. I could fish out the odd lamp, but the rest was debris. It's funny when this happens to someone else – poor Tom – but it sure wasn't funny when it happened to me.