Book Review: Ulysses by James Joyce
Preview…If ever there’s a book that refuses to fit cleanly inside the literary mode, it’s James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Upon my first reading attempt several years back, I quickly gave up, assigning the title of “literary Everest” to the lengthy tome. Now that I’ve finally climbed my mountain, I couldn’t be more thrilled! This is, without a doubt, one of the most worthwhile books that I’ve ever read (and don’t forget: it was voted the best English language novel of the twentieth century).
Having begun with a string of exorbitant praise, it’s time to get real. This is an extremely challenging read. Normally, I give a plot preview of my recommended novel, but today I’m going to share with you a few tips about wading through this novel’s stormy seas—tips that would have made my own journey simpler and perhaps more rewarding.
Familiarize yourself with works referenced or emulated within the text and/or invest in a critical companion to the novel. Here are the references that I found most vital: Homer’s “Odyssey”, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, Joyce’s own “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” and “Dubliners”, and, of course, the Bible.
Understand that “Ulysses” is a rhythmic, breathing work. Think of it like a song or a poem, not a novel in the traditional sense. Let the rhythm flow over your mind, or speak it aloud for added effect.
Know that the draw of the novel is not its plot. Yes, there is some form of a narrative arc, but if you focus on what’s going to happen next, you’re going to miss all the greatness that is happening right now.
Realize that “Ulysses” is made great because of its style. Joyce sought to write a novel for English professors, and he’s absolutely done that. Each chapter is written in a distinct, experimental style. A few of my favorites were told: via newspaper bylines, with a series of questions and answers and by highlighting the moving evolution of the English language.
Read online summaries as you go. While I was reading, I would visit sparknotes.com after each chapter to make sure that I didn’t miss anything important before continuing on—this is a strategy that I oft employ for more difficult reads (such as Dickens or Dostoevsky). It’s also helpful to secure a heads-up as to upcoming style techniques and relations to the Odyssean theme.
Give yourself time. Don’t expect to finish this book over your vacation. It took me one month to complete “Ulysses” satisfactorily—normally, I complete at least five books per month. Luckily, this novel’s focus on style over plot means it’s easy to set down and revisit at will, giving you no excuse to give up!
I didn’t fully appreciate the import of this novel until about halfway through, but I didn’t quit. Although it may take a while to get into, this novel is well worth a thorough read. It may be particularly enjoyable for those who consider themselves writers or historians.
Links to Ulyssean analyses: Literary devices in Ulysses, Webisodic analysis, Graphic Novel