The Modern Library is high on crack

A few months ago, the Facebook book group of which I am peripherally a member decided it would tackle "Ulysses." I'd never participated in the group before with any real gusto, but I'd wanted to give "Ulysses" another try after an abortive first attempt several years ago. So, regardless of the impending arrival of the Critter, I pulled my old copy off the shelf and started reading. Today, I finally closed the book on the last, breathless "yes."

For those of you uninterested in the thoughts of a pissant little blogger who writes a picayune little blog as regards to The Great Classic of Western Literature, feel free to tune out now. James Joyce is, after all, James Joyce, and I am... me. But having dragged my eyes across those seemingly endless pages, I feel like I've earned the right to express an opinion.

Still here?

I'm sorry, Modern Library, but I think you are full of crap. I don't know what makes for a book to be considered "great," but basic readability strikes me as an important consideration. I would love to style myself the sort of person who would read and enjoy "Ulysses," but after having finished the whole thing I'm damned if I could tell you what the hell was going on for much (most?) of it. Perhaps I am insufficiently bright, or have a poverty of knowledge of culture and history and such, but those pages are so full of needless obscurity and endless allusion that I defy anyone to tell me he/she could understand much of the writing. (OK, maybe the occasional professor of literature.)

If it weren't for this book's vaunted reputation, I would probably not have bothered. Earlier this year I tried to read "Against the Day," and had a "Screw you, Pynchon" reaction at page 353, at which point I inserted the bookmark (in case I get the daft notion to try again) and put it back on the shelf. Is it too much to ask that the author have a basic consideration for the reader, and provide even minimal clue as to what is being described? Is even the thinnest plot thread an unrealistic expectation? There are occasional bursts of humor or brilliance, and I'm sure from a purely literary perspective there is much to admire, but from the perspective of a relatively intelligent and well-educated reader, I found the whole experience thoroughly unenjoyable. What few pleasurable passages I found were buried amid endless thickets of inscrutable references and gestures and winks and pastiches. This may seem odd coming from someone whose favorite novel is "Infinite Jest," but I genuinely believe the value of a novel is compromised or lost outright when it is flagrantly clear that the author cares nothing at all for whether the reader can follow what's going on or not. (For the record, I think "Infinite Jest" is much, much easier to read and enjoy than it is given credit for being.)

Beyond simply finding the text incomprehensible, I was also struck by its obsessive interest in the smutty. Before I read it I assumed that all the noise about its obscenity reflected the prudish sentiments of the early 20th century. But no. It's quite graphic in places, even by today's standards. I wasn't offended per se, but I did get awfully tired of reading about women's undergarments.

Scanning the rest of Modern Library's list, I would choose to reread any of the others I've already read (with the exception of "Tropic of Cancer," another stream-of-consciousness slog about an aggressively heterosexual protagonist with a thing for prostitutes, the appeal of which was similarly lost on me) than reread another chapter of "Ulysses." (And that does include Pynchon's "V.", which managed to be just accessible enough to be worthwhile.) I would rather read Marilynne Robinson's marvelous "Housekeeping" five more times, and it didn't even make the cut.

So, maybe I'm just too damn stupid to appreciate this great masterwork. I'm willing to admit the possibility. But anything that is simply impossible to understand without an equally massive reader's guide is, in my utterly humble opinion, just not worth it.


  1. Well. I've said before that I hate modernist novels. And being obscure is a kind of insult to the reader. That's fine if you're up for that sort of thing, but I'm not.

  2. Ah, Dan, Dan, Dan. And Elizabeth. I swear to you, they were not being obscure then. We're reading them 80 years too late to "get" them easily. Sorry the book pissed you off Dan.
    I maintain that I only love Ulysses because I read it in a graduate seminar with a Joyce scholar who knew what every inside joke meant. And every Odyssey reference was. We read three---3-- companion books at the same time to understand what Dubliners of the time would have. And with all that hullaballoo, it was brilliant. That's the only reason I love it. I "get" it because I was taught to read Modernism and 1920s Irish lit. I was given the key. And it opened quite a phenomenal book. For me. Doesn't mean you're lacking not to like it, even with the key.
    Ulysses is a period piece, part of a highly stylized tradition, all of which take years to really swim in. And, if, like Elizabeth you don't want to swim there, you have lots of company. I can't stand Victorian lit, but some adore it. I LOATHE medieval stuff. Some revel in it. I just happen to like Modernism.
    You do, however, have excellent taste in lit, being a Wallace fan and a Pynchon sneerer, and what I say to you is this...in one hundred years, people will *hate* that Infinite Jest is taught in Universities as the pivotal moment between postmodernism and whatever comes next. They won't *get* any of it. It'll piss them off. But it's still freaking genius. And we get to explore that now. So let's read DFW instead of Joyce, shall we?

  3. What a joy to finally find a post that doesn't have a gadfly comment already appended. Sheesh.