Tomorrow is Bloomsday, a literary holiday celebrated through the world, but mostly in Dublin, in which people follow the path that Leopold Bloom wove through the city in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. I get really excited about the celebration of any work of literature, especially a holiday that was started by Flann O’Brien (love him!). But Bloomsday brings me back to the multitude of feelings I have towards James Joyce. And they’re complicated. While I normally wouldn’t post my literary criticisms on this blog, I guess the holiday has me a little carried away. So here we go:
Joyce is pretty well regarded as the father of post-modern literature, and post modern/experimental/counter-traditional literature is pretty much at the top of my reading list (and what I try to write myself). One of my favorite authors, Samuel Beckett, worked very closely with Joyce himself. So why is it that I have always hated James Joyce for all I’m worth?
James Joyce, in Ulysses, does lots of the things that I love about counter-traditional lit—he breaks down the traditional notions of narrative, he employs stream of consciousness, his language is careening yet skillful—and still I hate it. I hate that this novel is held up as a high water mark of fiction; I hate that reading it entails 700+ pages of endless self-reference, all to end with a cliche—an orgasm–a burst of positive prose–an ending that is a bit of a cop-out, really, to the turmoil and confusion of the rest of the novel; I hate that you have to accompany it with the reading of 700 page reference book to make any sense of it. I hate it because of this endless feeling that it carries that you’re supposed to make sense of it, when I am more than happy to enjoy other counter-traditional writers as they stand, without sense or reason. I hate hate hate this book.
And, yet, when you look at all the writers that mean so much to me, at Nabokov, and Beckett, and Calvino, and Barth, and Barthelme, and Borges, they all point back to this awful, awful book as the place where all their work comes from.
I really hate James Joyce’s Ulysses. Virginia Woolfe famously summed up my feelings on his book by saying she was, “puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” Yes, I hate Joyce. But I love his descendants. And here I am, a writer of counter-traditional literature. So isn’t he, somehow, my ancestor, too? You can hate your grandparents. You can disown them. But you can never make them not yours.
On Bloomsday, you won’t catch me reenacting anything, drinking, or reading any Joyce at all. But maybe I’ll be writing. And maybe that will be a way of celebrating Joyce in and of itself.