You can’t accuse James Joyce of myopia. His vision of the city of Dublin on June 16, 1904, encompasses the entire universe. At times abstruse, Joyce’s masterwork is never obtuse—I am sure that he felt every single word was necessary and had been placed exactly where it was required. Of course he may have been utterly freaking insane.
Ulysses has often been called the greatest modern novel ever written. It is a fascinating book, a towering bulwark of extreme literature, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it is not a great novel, not at least as we traditionally think of them. Given that all 783 pages take place in the span of a single day, there is not much linear space for major character development. Things happen, but they are the minute daily things that make up a life. Any life. And that’s the point. Ulysses is definitely a whole other cup of meat as compared to most of the other works that populate such discretionary lists.
The myriad in-jokes, puns, and allusions to other texts both ancient and modern, make the experience of navigating Joyce’s mind a tough one without a couple of other books at arm’s length. I found Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated very helpful as I went along. I later added Harry Blamires’ The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses when I got bogged down in the hallucinatory trip through the Nighttown brothels.
Ulysses doesn’t reveal its charms without some give and take. You have to put in the work. But once in a while, usually when you aren’t expecting it, the veil is lifted and the diamond-faceted lattice of reality is glimpsed for a moment. The superstructure that holds up the thrill ride is divulged for a split second right before the next plunge, and in that moment it all becomes worth it.
Or maybe I have gone utterly freaking insane.