I wonder if it is possible to write a rational book review of this notoriously difficult and consistently praised novel. The unique style of Ulysses does not lend itself to a standard issue review. I loved the brilliance and humor that shown throughout this work, but I loathed the overwrought cleverness that weighed it down. I appreciate how mind-blowingly revolutionary it must’ve been at the time it was written and that its structure and prose are still freshly innovative today.
I didn’t struggle with Ulysses the way I did on my first two abandoned attempts, which probably can be attributed to following a reading schedule and digesting each section one at a time. I decided not to explore any of the reading guides or summaries of the work prior to reading. I respect that a reader’s guide may have eased my journey through the work, but I was worried it would influence my reactions and detract from the experience of connecting to Ulysses as a unique reader. I found a stripped-of-all-notes, no distractions, unabridged copy of the book, and simply dug in.
I appreciate Joyce’s technique and experiments with style. I found his echoes of, and connections to, other literary works rather fun. I, in turns, enjoyed Joyce’s cleverness and found that cleverness eye-rollingly overdone. My greatest joy in reading Ulysses was finding the literary gifts sprinkled throughout, and encountering the passages in the work where a character’s stream of consciousness rang true in gloriously jumbled cadence. I found Molly’s segment absolutely brilliant in this regard, and was happy to close Ulysses with the feeling of exhilaration Molly’s thoughts brought with them.
My biggest disappointment in this novel is that I want to feel caught up in the undertow of a novel, especially one that deals in intimate point of view and stream of consciousness, but I just didn’t feel caught up in this as a whole work. I understand the fascination of literary scholars who spend decades plumbing the depths of Ulysses for treasure or working to solve the puzzles strewn throughout by Joyce. I am certain I will revisit individual sections of this work to deepen my understanding of them, but I don’t feel compelled to return to Ulysses as a complete novel.
Ulysses is a remarkable exploration of style and experiment in stream of consciousness, but I don’t know that I would go so far as to recommend it. For any friends with a desire to read Ulysses, I would say “Go for it!” and offer all the support they’d like as they work their way through it. To friends expressing a desire to wade into modernist literature, I would instead recommend picking up Faulkner, Eliot, Woolf, or Pound. My first choice is anything by Faulkner, whose writing I love, though I’m understanding of anyone who doesn’t connect with his world and style. The Sound and The Fury is my personal favorite by Faulkner, but Light in August is better on which to cut one’s teeth. Other enjoyable examples of modernist writing are The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and anything by Ezra Pound, who I think is a true craftsman. Alternatively, I’d recommend picking up the latest by George Saunders, who explores style, plot, and character in the strange and magical Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel which is uniquely structured and particularly fun to read–and doesn’t require additional guides, notes, or interpretations to understand.
Links to Further Explore Ulysses
Brilliant “Ulysses to go (James Joyce in 18 minutes, English version)” as told with Playmobil by Sommer’s World Literature to go
I watched this film after completing my reading. I enjoyed how closely the film followed the dialogue of the book, though it is somewhat simplified in certain segments, which was no doubt necessary to fit this entire day into 113 minutes. I was glad I watched it after I finished the book, but I think it could be helpful to struggling readers to watch when they get bogged down a few chapters in. From IMDb: Adapted from James Joyce’s Ulysses, Bloom is the enthralling story of June 16th, 1904 and a gateway into the consiousness of its three main characters: Stephen Dedalus, Molly Bloom and the extraordinary Leopold Bloom.
This documentary was more enthusiastically delivered summaries for each chapter than tourism video, though the narrator, Robert Nicholson, does present each segment on location in Dublin. Nicholson’s love of Joyce’s work, and of Dublin itself, make this a fun alternative to written summaries of Ulysses. From product packaging: Although James Joyce spent much of his adult life in self-imposed exile from his native Dublin, the beloved Irish city retained a firm grip on his imagination, serving as the center of his literary universe. This documentary reveals that universe through a detailed tour of the city and the author’s favorite haunts. James Joyce Museum curator Robert Nicholson serves as the guide, sharing his extensive knowledge of the man and his works.