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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Ulysses

I fell behind on writing reviews on the books I've read and have been working to catch up.  I'm sure that some of my reviews haven't been as detailed as they would have been if I'd gotten around to some of them sooner.  Some reviews I've skipped altogether because they didn't make much of an impression and I couldn't remember how I felt about them six months later.  That is not an issue I have with Ulysses by James Joyce.  When I saw that was my next book to review, the white hot rage welled up in me like I just finished reading this piece of trash yesterday.

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I'll be the first to admit that, as a very literal thinker, there is a lot that I can miss while reading great literature in terms of themes, symbols, and even clever turns of phrase.  While not a big fan of certain works I've read, I have generally seen at least some artistic merit in each of them.  I'm even including Lolita with all of its creepiness; Don Quixote with its rambling, unbelievably redundant narrative; Infinite Jest with its maddening endnotes and impossible to follow plot; and Catch 22 with its insane characters.  I found nothing redeeming about this book.

I have to believe that Ulysses only came to exist as a result of a sick bet Joyce made that he could write a book so inaccessible that critics would feel the need to praise it despite a complete lack of merit.  Joyce won the bet, and everyone who ever opened the book lost.  There are certainly many people who would disagree with me.  An article in the Economist defending the book went so far as to call it "fun" and a great book to bring to the beach.  According to this person who was actually defending Ulysses, all you need is Don Gifford's "Ulysses Annotated" (694 pages), Harry Blamires's "The New Bloomsday Book" (272 pages), and Joseph Campbell's "Mythic Worlds, Modern Words" (368 pages).  The article didn't go so far as to say that it's needed, but apparently being a full-time literature student is also highly suggested.  It's fine if outside resources can enhance a reading experience.  If they are required for basic comprehension then that alone makes it a failure as a piece of literature in my view. 

I can get that a challenge can make ultimately reaching a goal more satisfying, so maybe that's what makes this book liked by so many people. Personally, I've never found that an author intentionally obscuring his meaning behind references that most people will not get and language that most people will not be able to follow to make anything about the book more enjoyable or beneficial for the reader. I don't mean using esoteric terms or elaborate grammar, I mean eschewing basic punctuation so that it's impossible to tell who's talking or if someone's talking at all. Apparently Joyce hated quotation marks almost as much he hated his readers.  I can't help feeling, though it is uncharitable of me, that the satisfaction that a good portion its fans derive from the novel isn't enjoyment of the novel itself or a sense of accomplishment from overcoming its challenges as much as a sense of superiority over those who are not willing to commit far, far more time to understanding the novel than it deserves.

To me, this book is clearly designed to impress other writers, not to convey a story, or even ideas. Clearly I would not recommend it. I'd be surprised if there aren't people who stopped trying to read classic books because of this overrated junk.  If Finnegans Wake is half as bad, it might do the same to me.

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