One needs a strategy for tackling Ulysses. A friend of mine swears she read Ulysses, in print, one summer while following along with Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated. She says she really enjoyed it, and that the 640+ pages of fine-print annotations made her feel like she was doing the detective work needed to fully understand the context of Ulysses. She’s likely both more intelligent and more patient than I am, because trying that made me feel like I was going insane. I couldn't get myself to care about the biographies and geographies and histories of every real and imaginary reference, some of which I’m pretty sure were supposed to be a joke anyway.
Since finishing this marathon, I’ve found that most other people who claim to love Ulysses took a class, usually during their undergraduate years, with a professor who almost exclusively studies the book. This intense, semester-long focus led by a knowledgeable and experienced tour guide seems to help make the whole thing more bearable. I imagine it’s a gift to have someone to tell you which parts of the text you can safely skip and which have something really interesting happening just under the surface. But if a book needs an expert guide to be made tolerable, then can it really be considered a “good” book? What about all the readers out there who don’t have first-hand access to such an expert?
I eventually developed my own strategy. I got the audiobook on CD from the library (with much thanks to Columbus Metropolitan Library for letting me keep it for 6 months!) and listened to it during my commute every day… or every day I could while still avoiding the temptation to drive my car into a river. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and this is the first one I recall with an intro explaining the process behind its creation. Apparently, Joyce’s heirs would only release the rights for the audiobook if Donal Donnelly was the narrator (he does a pretty great job), and the production staff spent way longer than usual on research and notes to figure out how the text should be read aloud. I can’t imagine it could be done any better than what Recorded Books managed to pull off. This made it much easier to keep up with the sound effects, songs, and dialogue than the printed text would have allowed.
Near the beginning of each episode, I also read the summary and analysis on SparkNotes. (Hey, if it’s good enough for Bob Dylan’s Nobel speech…) Really, this was invaluable to me. I could keep up with the incremental plot movements and character interactions without getting too frustrated with the layers and layers of obscurity piled on top of them by this sadistic author. OK, maybe I still got a little frustrated. But having a broad understanding of each episode in advance helped me push through.
As a novel, Ulysses is miserable. The characters don’t develop, many of them are indistinct from one another, and they don’t have stakes or goals. They mostly just get drunk, complain about the state of Irish culture all day, and entertain deeply repressed thoughts about sex. The plot is barely worth mentioning. The writing is (intentionally) inconsistent, obscure, and overwrought. You’re as likely to encounter a fart joke as a reference to Jesuit philosophers. There’s a whole chapter that critiques Hamlet, and another in which the main character masturbates in public. It’s a mess.
And the women characters are the worst. It made me wonder if Joyce had ever really spent time listening to a woman, let alone understanding her in any significant way. The very very few female characters exist entirely through a man’s lens. Even when the narration enters their heads (even Molly’s), they define themselves entirely by the attention they draw from men based on how they look and act and speak.
But I get why Ulysses is considered important. Joyce shows off a wide range of writing styles here, and he does all of them well (although I’m admittedly more familiar with some than others). It’s impressive that all these words and tones came from a single author. If Ulysses were turned into some kind of epic movie or mini-series, you’d need a different director for each episode; one person alone could not capture what makes Ulysses unique. That doesn’t mean it’s worth reading, just that it’s “important.”
I actually finished Ulysses in July, but I'm just now finishing this review. In a week or so, I’ll post my rather grumpy plot summary of Ulysses here. Stay tuned!