Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Joyce's ULYSSES: Over-rated

That's right; I said it. It sucks.

I have a few friends who revere this novel, and they join countless critics and literary aficionados who claim Ulysses is one of the greatest works of mankind. In fact, I recently saw a list of the best 100 novels ever--and Joyce's work was #3, beaten out only by Don Quixote and War and Peace. Yet whenever I ask anybody why Ulysses is so incredible, I invariably get a confused look...as if I had just asked whether breathing was a good thing. Somebody will say it's a breakthrough novel (whatever that means) and another will say it's the best stream-of-consciousness work ever written. And somebody else will sputter out the words "timeless" and "post-modern".

In other words, nobody can tell me a damn thing.

Ulysses is a failed novel. Sure, it's an innovative work, staggering in its attempt to break the genre. A critic of Kenneth Brannaugh's film Love Labor's Lost said something which is important here. The film, which attempts to take Shakespeare's play and transform it into a muscial, doesn't work. The critic admits that it doesn't work--but he also says that we must admire and congratulate the film-maker for taking such a risk, for striving to produce something new. We must apply the same standards to Joyce. He tried something new, and others have since built on this work. The publishers should be congrulated too, for publishing such a work was a huge risk, a breaking of the "genre" of publishable work. How many publishing houses today would touch such experimental writing (especially a work of fiction in an industry which publishes 75% non-fiction)?

The tipping of hats to valiant attempts--sure, that's important; however, the fact remains the novel is a failure. The purpose of a novel is broad, perhaps, but it is definable, I think. We read it to be entertained; we read to escape our mundane lives. We read to learn what it is like to be stranded on a desert island, to look evil in the face, to be worshipped, to be humiliated and destroyed...ultimately, we read to experience all that there is to be experienced. Often that experience is tied to how we see characters interacting in the world--and how that world pushes back. Or we see the world from the perspective of the characters themselves, hearing their voices or seeing the world filtered through their eyes (or even through their minds). The ability to experience becomes difficult when the world is filtered entirely. It becomes more difficult when there is no perceivable journey.

You are already thinking of a rebuttal. Let me sum up your options:
1) You say: "You've convinced me. You're arguments are eloquent. You are good looking. Here, take some naked pictures of my wife. And here are some throw cushions for your home."
2) You say: "Oh yeah? Well your mama is so fat that she broke her leg and gravy came out."
3) You say: "The novel is not a static genre. In fact, Joyce's novel caused us to re-examine what a novel is; he widened the genre."

My response:
1) You are a reasonable person. Now I'd like to share with you my ideas about why "horticulture" is neither a culture or a whore.
2) I too have seen White Men Can't Jump and your mama is so poor that when she had to move homes she kicked a can down the street.
3) Joyce widened nothing but the gap between the masses and the intellectual elite who love to cling to books and words which the proliteriat cannot begin to fathom. No--Ulysses is not a novel. A piece of experimental writing? Yes? Narrative stream of wretchedness? Yes. But, no it's not a genre-widening piece. I could take a dump on a statue of Buddha and call it art, but I hope nobody would say that I've just widened art (or Buddha).


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