Being Young and Being Old
I don’t have much too say specifically about the final episode of Ulysses. I’ve learned by now just to let myself be carried along in the stream of Joyce’s prose, so I bumped along as usual this week. Some things were funny and some were very nicely rendered. The closing cascade of memories/thoughts/emotions was lovely. Maybe it’s too cute to suggest that Molly undergoes a metempsychotic sort of change over the course of the episode, morphing from something of a shrill malcontent to someone who by the end has a bit of a heart.
The books I like the most are the ones that leave me sort of stunned at the end because of how well-wrought they are, or how dazzling. Ulysses falls short for me in this department. It’s clearly the work of a really smart guy who has a keen ability to make you inhabit the head of the characters he writes. But the thing is that I already inhabit my own head. My head isn’t quite the carnival that has set up tents in Bloom’s head, but the thought patterns Joyce captures are familiar to me. I suppose I’m ok with familiar, though. Part of what resonates so strongly with me in David Foster Wallace’s brief interviews, for example, is that some of them represent not quite the whole exact truth about ways I’ve felt or things I’ve thought, but neither are they so terribly close to outright parody. It’s the harrowing familiarity and honesty in that work that appeals to me. So much of Ulysses captured the formal or structural familiarity of how people think but had very little familiarity to me in terms of subject matter or personal feeling. It’s not a book I could relate to in any way, and that surely colored my enjoyment of it.
I guess I feel about this book more or less the way I feel about Pynchon’s books. They’re kind of like nasty medicine. I don’t much enjoy them going down, but they’re probably good for me. I don’t know if I’ll ever reread this one. I’ve tried off and on for over a decade; ask me again in another decade. I’m pretty sure I’ll never attempt Finnegan’s Wake.
I suppose I should do something besides trash-talk the book, though, so I’ll toss out something half-baked and cross my fingers that the more learned and enthusiastic among us can add to or subtract from it in the comments.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I believe Joyce rewrote to serve as a sort of preface to Ulysses, is explicitly about being young. Ulysses, then, is a book about being old, or maybe — since its two most distinctive voices are closer to middle-age — about what happens to you as you begin to grow old. I started to type out a bunch of sort of flimsy evidence in support of this statement, but it began to feel a little high-school term-paperish, so I’ll let the statement stand more or less on its own now, and we can take it up in the comments.
I won’t say that I enjoyed Ulysses a whole heck of a lot, but I am glad to have read it, and reading along with others has, as ever to date, made the experience richer for me. Thanks to those who wrote blog posts or comments, and many thanks to Judd for starting us off; it wouldn’t have happened without him.