Ulysses is a big long book with a lot of words and it hurts when you drop it on your toe. Mind you, Ulysses isn’t the first book I’ve dropped on my toe: A King James Bible, my family’s Masonic Bible (which is exactly like the King James version except the word God had been completely edited out), Gravity’s Rainbow (unironically), and The Unbearable Lightness of Being whose sharp corner wounded my little toe. However, aside from Pynchon, I’ve read every book that has fallen on my foot and so I have now moved on from being a person who has not read Ulysses to that rare breed of a bore who has. I now belong to a group that not even Joyce belonged to because, according to my edition’s afterword, once the novel was printed (aside from some very minor errata) he finally gave up and stopped editing (and thus reading) the text all together. I can now claim the company to that special soggy breed of individual who drags their significant other to a day walking tour of Bloom’s Dublin (minus the ocean-side masturbation) and who (aside from the people already from Ireland) are at least happy to be in Ireland.
Speaking of Bloom, he’s the main character and he’s as boring as the people who follow around in his imaginary footsteps and walk right past all the good drinking spots (because Bloom doesn’t drink). All the people in the book who are not boring are all the sort of people in the world who would not ever read Ulysses – Molly (Bloom’s wife), she gets around with every guy in town and doesn’t even wash the sheet stains after, Simon Deadalus, Stephen’s father, who is a real Irish piece of work and makes fun of Bloom every chance he gets, and there is a rat in the cemetery that gnaws away on the corpse of a dead main character, Dignam. To give you an idea of what sort of guy Bloom is, well if you ever find yourself in his company and look up at the sky and wonder aloud why is the sky blue, Bloom will give you the absolute correct scientific principle regarding the scattering of light and nitrogen and the rods and cones in our eyes and … he’ll take all the living fun out of the whole thing, regardless if the question was rhetorical.
But let’s talk about the guy who wrote the book, James Joyce. Joyce is, as we all know, the greatest comedic novelist of all time and Ulysses is his grand comedic masterpiece. See, what Joyce does is he tricks a lot of really pretentious people into thinking that he is actually a genius because he knows a lot of big words and that there seems to be an awful lot of literary, artistic, historical, even mathematical references imbued into every ink stain of a sentence on every page. Those of us who know, however, know better. You see, Joyce cast the widest net possible when framing this uproarious little ditty – he cast it all the way back to ancient Greece (the founding of all western society) and then wrote his book in a western language! Isn’t that hilarious? Oh, you don’t quite see what I’m getting at? Well, it is a touch obscure at first, but bear with me. Since Joyce wrote the book in a western language he was forced to have to use words and phrases and cultural references that, in effect, date back to ancient Greece and thus connect to all of western civilization. No matter what Joyce wrote, it would always have a connection to some other thing in history! Now the trick Joyce uses is that by titling the book ‘Ulysses’ (there is no Ulysses in the book, by the way) he tricks a certain type of person’s brain into thinking that every word he writes is a deliberate reference to some aspect of history, or art, or math, or philosophy, or some such over-education. For example, when he mentions a river (doesn’t matter which one), some egg-headed scholar will add a footnote to the back of the book (and they’ll do it as you’re reading it, which is very annoying and you have to keep shooing these annoying pests away with the promise of some grant money or a recent tenure possibility) saying that what Joyce REALLY means by the river is the stream of consciousness, or the river Styx, or the passage of time – they’ll relate it to anything EXCEPT whatever river Joyce mentions. Basically Joyce gets a lot of stupid-smart people to do all the work for him and all he had to do was give the book a famous Greek name, make the book really long, throw in some Latin, and there-you-have-it! And this has been going on for over 100 years now! Funniest damn thing in the history of literature. Hell, he even says in the book that the priests hold a lot of their power because the congregation doesn’t even speak the Latin the mass is said in! It’s like Joyce is daring us!!
His other great comedy routine is his stated desire to re-invent the novel (and even attempt to give the Irish their masterpiece) but then he just only goes about copying the styles of writing done by other people! In one chapter we get a bunch of newspaper headline, another is a really bad play that goes on for 200 pages and is about nothing at all, another is a series of Socratic questions … goes on and on. He literally does nothing new yet manages to trick a lot of well-meaning people into thinking that copying is actually inventing!
Anyway, you might be wondering if I even liked the book. Well, yes, I did. In fact I loved it, but in that way a mother loves a child that has grown up to be a serial rapist and murderer who is currently serving ten consecutive life sentences in San Quentin – you love them, but it’s not easy and you do it because you sort of can’t help it and because they need you to love them and because you feel like God is making sure you love them or else He’ll send you hell if you give up on them.
It’s also the most positive book about humanity ever written. Joyce connects every aspect of our humble, daily lives and shows us how epic and rich even one, simple life can be. The novel even ends with the most positive word in English “yes” because Joyce is saying that no life is too unimportant, too small, no person is too marginalized or morally bankrupt, or sleazy, or noble, to not not deserve respect. No other book does this – no other book connects our own ordinary lives to that of Homer, or 5000 years of history, art, culture, religion – all of it, we’re a part and product of everything that came before and life is brief and we should be grateful for it. That’s why it’s a 5-star book because it doesn’t just say life is precious – he proves it. It’s like nothing ever written. Yet it’s a tough book to love, it’s difficult, it’s obtuse, it’s obscure, it will make you want to throw it across the room out of frustration and confusion, it wont make any sense half the time, it will challenge every nerve ending in your brain – but that’s why it’s worth it. Life is difficult and this book is difficult. Life isn’t a Nicholas Sparks, life-affirming, tell us what we want to hear sort of thing – life is Ulysses. The book is for everyone, and it’s for nobody, too. I don’t know who I’d ever recommend the book too because you just gotta find your own way to and through it. I will say that it’s worth all the pain, like giving birth to an fitful child.