Thursday, July 08, 2010

Book Review: Ulysses, by James Joyce

Well, that took a while. Ulysses (maybe you've heard of this one) is really a special kind of challenge: the plot isn't terribly complicated, and the characters and their motivations are not indecipherable. It's not the kind of puzzle novel that obscures plot points amid selective omissions. It's got its share of jokes and analogies that probably require the better part of a bachelor's in liberal arts to get behind. I didn't get as many as I'd have liked--I realized, for example, that I was missing a lot of Stephen Dedalus's classical philosophical motif on his long walk on the beach--but I don't think they're unassailable. The real challenge is just the reading, it's the form, the structure, the confounding sense of flow. I've frequently been thinking of it as a long-form experiment with the language, which isn't wrong, but which is a little unfair. Ulysses does what novels generally try to do, even if takes the long way around. It explores and reveals some insight about the human condition using plot, character, setting, and the tools of language. What Joyce is doing is looking closer at the English's relationship to the other things. It's one of those books with a high entry fee--it's a lot to ask to decipher structure, theme and plot all at once--but I think it's actually easy to enjoy, provided you can get used to it and don't mind the length.

I guess the briefest of summaries is in order: 18 sequential chapters of novella length, each varying the frame in one way or another. Sometimes Joyce is getting in his characters' heads in a narrative that reads a little closer to the loopy curlicues of actual thought than the usual exposition-and-dialogue. Other times, he takes on some formal analogies here and there (headlines, a stage play, an oral defense). Some are chapter-long thematic vehicles, and there are a few episodes of unreliable, flawed narration, connected to the story or omniscient. A real hodgepodge of style, but it's connected, and you can get the authorial voice in all of them. I realize (based on reading part of the introduction) that each section is informally titled based on episodes from The Odyssey, but not familiar with the critical convention, I gave them nicknames of my own. (I try to avoid certain background reading before I get going with a review, because I usually find someone who has already did a better job of saying what I'm thinking. This'll probably be the worst case.) Although there are a number of throwaways to Homer's epic, I imagine it's "Ulysses" mostly for the general thematic case, a story that is meant to be some canonical representation of a bunch of stuff that happens in the wandering between a departure and a return. (Although having only read it once, I'm awfully hesitant to tell you what's not in there.) The narrative styles seemed intermittent to me, possibly selected for what might best illustrate a plot or thematic point, but if there was an overarching method to choosing the modes of expository madness, I missed it.

The most painful chapter? I found "Maternity" (ch 14) dreadful to get through, most frustratingly, because it's where the plot really begins to coalesce. It starts as a nearly unintelligible drumbeat of connected words, resolving to more sensible, but still difficult, prose, possibly meant to evoke the confusion of the exit which finally sends Stephen and Leopold Bloom on a parallel journey. For all the female points of view Joyce daringly got into in other chapters, here among Bloom, Stephen, and the medical students, for all of their clever contrasts about procreation, we never did quite hear what the ladies might have thought about it. Buck and the gang are never more annoying than in this chapter, and what actually bothered me most was that I just didn't understand the nature of the place--why did the ward have a bar in it? My favorite chapter ("The Tales of Brave Ulysses," Ch 12) was a more normal bar where a loquacious bigoted drunk recounts Bloom's visit, getting seamlessly interrupted by some other brain which goes off on silly, purple tangents. Bloom isn't represented as a potent soul here and his climactic rejoinder isn't impressive. The chapter balances the sympathy of the presumed listener and the distaste of the reader, and both voices of the narrators are, for their personal or intellectual failings, droll as hell, with even more smiles in the contrast. This is the chapter you most hear the brogue.

A great deal needs to be said about the audible element. It took me to Ch 11 (lamely, "Music") to finally realize that Joyce is doing more than offering a few occasional teasers on music, but he's often structuring his prose that way. It's not lyrical in the sense I'd usually mean it: although you'll find the occasional alliteration, repetition or rhyme, and the words are certainly chosen for aesthetic effect, it's not words to a song (well, usually--a short sample of lyrics are in fact how the chapter opens). Joyce is instead trying to make the language itself do the the things that music does. There are recurring rhythms and patterns that go along with episodes and characters. Right down to the syntax, he's trying to work harmonies, sometimes letting a sequence of thought or words trail up while another drifts down, like a dominant closing in on the tonic, or, you know, declining to close (hi switters). Maybe you'd say it's unrhymed poetry, but I think I'd rather call it prose music. Now, it's got to be hard to make literature do this on so fundamental a level, or at least it was tougher to read than a stage play. Do you really need prose to copy something that sound is already successful at conveying, that is, are there more reasons to read this than some experimental satisfaction? Well, there's more to Ulysses than that obviously, and Joyce eventually gets a payoff or two for his themes, which is probably a lot clearer on a second read.

The word I'm looking for up there by the way, is leitmotif, which, like I said, isn't exactly unfamiliar in other media. Stephen's theme music, the rhythm of his streams of consciousness, is scholarly and complicated, and is most likely to incorporate these language tricks I just described. I have him as played by a string quartet, an adagio on the beach, an allegro in the library (musical terms suit his Italian scholarship), possibly a march-timed interlude in the maternity ward. Bloom, on the other hand, is simpler than Stephen, he's a complex man too, but more linear, something just a hair odd in the gait and the tonality but still speech-like. A little uptight, and a little pervy. I don't doubt for an instant that Joyce had him as klezmer. (Although when I got bored of his section, I found that singing the lines to the melody of Blackbird usually worked.) Molly Bloom needs a Spanish guitar, slowly accelerating and upping the pitch to build to an offscreen climax (yes). These difference sound trite to describe, although I think I'm right about how they're intended, but they are executed very carefully. We get a treat when Joyce finally contrasts a pair of them in chapter 13 ("Voyeur"). On the beach, Gerty MacDowell's inner voice is (disappointingly) immature and most closely resembles the streams of consciousness you'll more commonly find in literature, and halfway in, as always without warning, we're back Bloom's agreeable up-tempo to learn about the other side of the skirt-peeping. What I most appreciated about this technique is that it built a real feeling of the differentness of the various characters, highlighted them as individuals, very separate in their own minds. It's different than the usual tools of character-building, in which the author identifies a few traits as a skeleton, then fleshes them out as needed. You can put traits on Joyce's characters too, but they're more emergent, the result of an accretion of representations by themselves and by others. Which is more realistic?

It's hard to read words as allegorical musical notes, but these various styles tapped other veins too. The visible is the other modality we can't avoid, thanks to Stephen. Chapter 15 ("Hookey") is a lengthy sequence of the shifting perceptions and thought excursions we got used to in the musical chapters, now written as if they are externalized and viewed, with elaborate props, costumes, gimmicks and stage cues inserted by the narrator. Joyce's go-to analogy was theater or vaudeville (or some fusion thereof--Stephen's friends always caper around in a gaggle, but here every bit player is a member of knowing extras, like a multipurpose chorus or a portable peanut gallery), but these absurd stretches of sight gags are very accessible to, um, a student of modern visual media. Imagine the visit to Dublin's night town as a cartoon and it loses its weirdness quickly. I get from chapter 10 ("Tales of Springfield") a similar feeling, this one closely resembling the kaleidoscopic visuals that John Dos Passos made a lot of hay with a few years later. And there's a hell of a cultural difference between 1904 (the setting) and 1920 (published) to account for this sort of perceptual thing, following along the rapid development and meteoric popularity of film. In those intervening years, the roving camera eye became a staple of the Western experience.

As the novel progresses, the frequency of leitmotifs declines and we get a number of formally structured chapters before it goes out on Molly's big solo. Although the narrators could get verbose, these more obviously engineered chapters were easier to digest, a straight story under the avoidable modifiers and cliches appropriate to the style of the mystery lecturers, or the mandates of the framing. Jesus, in a similar context did I write that "there's a fine line between cleverness and excusing yourself for bad writing, between showing your authorial hand and distancing your readers from your characters"? Well, it's the execution, right, and I think one reason that these skits go on so long is that Joyce wants to show beyond doubt who's in control of the language here; he tosses off a profundity now and again to let us know he's in on the ideas as well. We're not going to forget that it's good writing and not a hobble on some literary crutches.

So, how serious is Ulysses? The thing is full of humor really (a lot more ironic smiles than gut laughs), and a lot of the "important" subject matter gets subsumed under the imperfect characters and faulty narration modes. I don't think the characters are particularly deep, not in the sense of a direct and profound analysis, or of the sterling character traits with which novels usually present people, and Bloom, our main dude, nearly falls under the weight of stereotypes when it comes to the littler descriptions. Stephen is complex in an intellectually facile way, but he comes off as unfocused (understandable: he lost his mother and got sucked back to Dublin; he's broke and too proud or too decent to go home to a family that is also broke; his friends are assholes), and as a wounded idealist. We don't forget that he's young. Mind you, I have gotten this vibe from Shakespeare too (although in his case, he had defining adjectives run through his characters like pillars). 300 years of literature later, and I don't believe Joyce is exactly trying to sell us shallow characters either, more, maybe, on the idea that a lot of human depth in literature is illusory, that our actual nature doesn't map as well to storytelling as we pretend. Joyce is without doubt taking the novel representation very seriously indeed.

I should be in bed, but there's one last thing I want to say here. I think the reason Ulysses is liked because it has a good heart. It's got jokes, jerks, pontification, losers, fuckups and oddballs, life, youth, age, and death, satisfaction, disappointment, marriage, sex, food, drink, beauty, music. It's about the things we care about, and it may take a while, but eventually you find that you care about the people in there too. A lot of the story is a variously one-sided and unflattering portrait of Leopold and Molly's marriage, which is unfaithful in action and constantly disregarding or misrepresented in thought. But the funny thing is that the Blooms are always thinking about one another. They're in mutual orbit, and in their way, they do connect as the primary people in one another's lives. It's strange, but really quite genuine and sweet. After a long journey home, I found myself touched at the end.

[Some edits.]

[Update: I'm a fan of these sorts of synesthetic cross-media explorations in general, which is probably why so much of the review glommed onto that area. I happened to catch Ratatouille last night, and to blabber again what I loved about it, it did a great job expressing on film how food tastes, and in the sequence where the food critic was converted, the expression of the emotional connection we have with food crossed over into brilliance.

It's an activity we do all the time, right? We talking animals are always finding ourselves explaining how things feel or how things went down. It's central to our experience, and in one sense, it's what literature basically is. Joyce really broke some molds in finding and then using different representational modes in writing. A little higher-level (probably) than using jazz and fireworks to show how flavors feel, although I think future art historians will look kindly on the Pixar efforts too. Film, stage, music, and fuck it, even lectures (and maybe cuisine too) are interesting media in that they've always struggled with the reverse of what telling normally does. They take a story, and must then convert it to display and sounds. Always a challenge, and it can obviously be hard to do well, judging by the endless reels of crap out there. All the failures to make a decent movie out of a good book. But even there, we've assimilated some fairly complex things to teh point where we take them for granted. Imagine the work that goes into a good movie score, for example. I think when it hits, it can be a higher level of craft than we usually give it credit for. Much as I like words and all.]


Cindy said...

Keifus - another fine review. It would be fun to sit down and have a beer and talk about the different points you make.

Not being Joyce, I can't make the written word even half-way approach what I would like to "say" ... especially in a conversational, storytelling way.

There was so much of Ulysses that I didn't like - at first or in later readings. I find a lot of it offensive. I find many of the people shallow and cruel.

Funny, they seem more and more like my family and friends.

I suppose there is some genius in that.

And I think you are spot on about the Blooms, and their far-from-perfect marriage. Because at some level they are well and truly married in all the ways that are important.


Keifus said...

Character-wise (saying nothing at all about the use of language here), I'm not sure it wasn't the point. It's a good case, and maybe Joyce was making it, that people aren't well defined by a clear and easy set of strong identifiers, but rather by an expansive collage of internal and external impressions. Which isn't to say personalities don't emerge from that.

Stephen comes off as a nice guy, if temporarily mixed up, and Bloom has some genuine sensitivity (why did he care about Mina Purefoy so much, and why did he follow Stephen?) to counteract the creepy or quirky bits. The rest of 'em? Stephen's old man seemed like my grandfather. Buck Mulligan was a passable Fool, but also an ass, with followers. Molly comes off as vituperative. Our bar patrons? Sailors? Whores? Narrators? Not eminently likeable, for the most part, but then he goes for a lot of unflattering views. (If you can imagine the red light district as a cartoon, by the way, I could read the following "academic" narrations as Monty Python sketches, unnecessarily stuffy voices as read by John Cleese. Maybe that's why they were easier.) A touch enough of racism that you notice it, although I think it was probably open-minded for 1920. So I think I know what you mean.

And yet I stand by my last paragraph. In a lot of the cases, maybe not quite all of them, I think Joyce was trying to make people be what they are.

Cindy said...

Coming out of the Victorian and Edwardian eras of sentimentality, all-good heroes and all-bad villains, I guess that's why so many who haven't read all of Ulysses can agree that it is a ground-breaking modern novel.

The people in his book are what they are. Rather like the majority of regular folks out here in meatland.

There are some interesting Independent movies in which the same sort of characters emerge. Where you are not sure that you exactly like someone, but you certainly recognize them, and know that at some point in your life you have liked, or been related to, someone much like that.

Or even been that.

I also think -- and this is something that is coming with age -- that most of us have quirky (or even creepy) sides or aspects that we would REALLY like to ignore, and pretend that only our neighbor has!

In reading biographies of James and Nora Joyce I couldn't help feeling some kind of admiration that they "let it all hang out" LONG before the 1960's told us it was hip to do so!

I'm not at all regular on the blogs when I'm on the road - and I miss reading ... so upon my next (and last?) return I shall be more regular. I promise!

(We have ascended the NC mountains for a last gasp of fresh air)

Keifus said...

Cindy, I'm thrilled you stop by at all. The mountains sound wonderful.

Of course, the characters-as-they-are gets a little exagerrated, and I am not that it applied to the extras. I think the reason that I didn't like Buck (who got the opening scene) was that he was more a service than a representation of a human being.

Switters mentioned something about Joyce's swingin' lifestyle...I meant to follow up on that when I was done.