Hello Offbeaters! We hope you’re all having a wonderful start to you spring season so far with the weather warming up and trees blooming! And of course, as our Michigan weather lies and changes cold and snowy suddenly, we’re doing a bait and switch too- a bonus media recommendation this week!
Today, I have recommendation to add to your To-Be-Read pile, or (more likely in this case,) your reading bucket list: James Joyce’s Ulysses. I myself haven’t finished the book (I’ve made a couple well-intentioned attempts), but I know it’s one masterpiece I hope to finish someday. After all, a story that was banned, censored, and revived into a classic due to its chaotic reception must be worth a good read.
We’re not recommending this book just because it’s a classic and feat of writing in general, but it’s also uniquely offbeat as well. According to Irish writer and scholar, Declan Kiberd, “Before Joyce, no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking.” Joyce does this through unique, literary means as he follows Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and his wife, Molly Bloom, through his epic narrative.
So, here are some offbeat reasons to pick up this brick of a book:
The story of Ulysses follows the life of two men named Stephan Dedalus and Leopold Bloom in Dublin, Ireland on June 16, 1904. That’s right, the nearly 700-page book (about 265,000 words) takes place all in one, single day. Everything from teaching a history class to adultery is covered in that day, though it’s also quite ordinary as well. Furthermore, it might be noticeable that Ulysses doesn’t sound all that Irish. This is because “Ulysses” is actually the Latinized version of “Odysseus,” the hero from Homer’s Odyssey. Joyce parallels his story with Homer’s beautifully, as well as drawing from his own life. In fact, the character Buck Mulligan was inspired by his friend and rival Oliver St. John Gogarty, and his comic portrayal followed Gogarty for the rest of his life. The story itself is rich with both an original and captivating narrative, as well as inspiration from ancient and contemporary sources alike.
Something that can always make a good story into a great story is style, and Joyce certainly thought of style when he wrote this masterpiece. In fact, he thought of many styles. Several sections are in a general prose format, others have small portions with creative subheadings leading paragraphs, then there are entire sections written as a script for a play or film. There are even more visual pieces of writing like music notes and receipts within the text as well. Joyce may have you reading pages of solid text for one moment (or a few days), then on the next page, there are short paragraphs, each beginning with a different question that needs to be addressed. However, the greatest feat in style would have to be the finale of Joyce’s masterpiece.
The entire last section of the book
You’ll know the last section of the book when you get there since you won’t remember when you started reading the first sentence and began the second. This is because there is no second sentence. The entire final section of the book consists of eight “sentences” that go on for pages at a time with no punctuation. None whatsoever, until the final word of Joyce’s story is read. (And in my copy, that’s 40+ pages.) This section is also interesting because it is from the point of view of Leopold’s wife, Molly, rather than the two men. Through her eyes at the end of the book, readers are able to see Joyce beautifully and definitively master a stream of consciousness narrative.
There’s no denying that Ulysses is both a masterpiece and an uphill battle for readers. Joyce himself said, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” He did just that, but it doesn’t mean us readers and writers looking for something zany and creative to read won’t enjoy it.
Also, if you have already read and conquered the intricacies of Ulysses, you could always give Joyce’s Finnegans Wake a try.
Have a wonderful weekend, ponder enigmatic puzzles, and stay weird.