Though many readers might not move beyond “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” or “Dubliners,” those two books alone would have assured James Joyce’s place in literary history.
To get the full effect of Joyce’s genius, though, one must proceed to “Ulysses,” which is a kaleidoscopic vision of human consciousness—a work so groundbreaking that its reverberations are still being felt in fiction as well as in post-modern philosophy, psychology, and even in one of my favorite pastimes, psychogeography (the art of drifting through a city landscape to see how mind, architecture and urban planning collide). Post-modern thinkers such as Felix Guattari, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan have all spent some time incorporating Joyce and his fiction into their work. (See: Deleuze & Guattari’s “A Thousand Plateaus”)
One might say that with “Ulysses” Joyce had mirrored the 20th century mind, or at least done the most in recording its illuminated and penumbral regions. With about 700 pages, Joyce had created and then given any willing reader the key to unleashing a movie inside their mind.
“Ulysses” has only a handful of works that might be said to rate as highly, and Joyce himself has very few peers of equal talent (Lewis Carroll should be placed in this category, but often is not owing to the fantastically warped nature of his work).
To draw the proper lines of ascent toward “Ulysses,” we must note that Joyce was a fan of Laurence Sterne’s “The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen,” an epic of digressions. It was, in a way, the “Ulysses” of its time. Although Sterne’s influence on Joyce is considerable, “Tristram Shandy” does not have the same effect in our time. It’s language is of the 18th century and Sterne’s words do not pop, nor do the images have a projected quality. Perhaps if Sterne had written in the early 20th century, he might have been something like Joyce.
Joyce, on the other hand, is still very current despite his writing period being the very early 20th century.
Beyond Sterne lies Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” which might be superior to “Ulysses” in certain passages, such as Melville’s chapters on the color white and one that discusses the myths of the sperm whale’s mysterious quantum appearances around the globe. And Melville’s masterpiece probably supersedes “Ulysses” in the true power of its narrative; but, Joyce was after something quite different in “Ulysses.” He was trying to capture a single day in the every-day lives of Dubliners and then magnify it into the heroic tradition of Homer’s works.
The two works are the twin monolithic hinges upon which all ambitious 20th century English literature is built. Both authors were great fans of Shakespeare, and yet both turned Shakespeare inside out into something new and exciting in their own times.
After “Ulysses” obliterated all ideas of what the novel had been and could be, only a few have followed that rate as highly, in my estimation.
Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” for one, is an equal in style, sheer information, cinematic evocation and humor. It lies within the shadow of “Ulysses” and so often breaks out as to eclipse Joyce’s master work. But it had over 50 years of world history and pop culture from which to draw, making it almost inevitable that its vision would rival Joyce’s own.
It has been said that David Foster Wallace approached Joyce’s heights with “Infinite Jest,” but having never finished the book, I can’t rightly comment on it. I have read Wallace’s essays and his book “Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity,” and certainly his mind was as agile and fragmented as Joyce’s. And what I have read of “Infinite Jest” seems to indicate he had a great facility with the English language, though not nearly as rhythmic and poetic as Joyce. Wallace was, however, up to something quite different than Joyce, just as Joyce was up to something quite different than Melville’s “Moby Dick.”
Raymond Queneau could be said to have attempted a French analogue of Joyce’s “Ulysses” with the novel “Witch Grass,” but it does not approach the heights of the former. It is a strange and curious novel, to be sure, but one reading was quite enough (even though I love Queneau). This might have had something to do with the translation; either way, it was not so vivid as “Ulysses.”
Aside from Pynchon, William S. Burroughs then might be Joyce’s nearest English-language analogue, as his mind had the near limitless potential for absorbing ideas and then communicating them in interesting ways. Burroughs might never have admitted it, but his prose had much in common with passages from “Ulysses,” what with its colorful combinations of words, rhythms and imagery all colliding and bursting in a strange literary fallout to suggest a projector in one’s mind.
Surrealist writer Phillipe Souppault created a world somewhat similar to “Ulysses” with his novella “Last Nights of Paris,” but, again, Souppault didn’t have as prismatic a mind as Joyce, nor was he as talented a wordsmith. But who knows, if not for Andre Breton’s rejection of the novel in his management of Surrealism (Breton being no fan of Joyce’s fiction), Souppault might have become a French equivalent.
Faulkner is often said to be the American answer to Joyce, and this might be so in certain respects; but I’ve never been as impressed by Faulkner’s fiction as I have been by Joyce’s. Faulkner was a great writer, but I highly doubt he had it in him to write something as kaleidoscopic as “Ulysses.”
After “Ulysses,” Joyce’s took 17 years to write his follow-up “Finnegan’s Wake,” which waits like an locked mechanism into a strange and terrible universe of words and associations. The nature of the work and its wordplay put him alongside Lewis Carroll, particularly the latter’s work in “The Jabberwocky,” where portmanteaus and puns strip normal sentences of their meaning and create new ones in their place.
To really understand the gravity of what Joyce did with “Ulysses,” however, we must turn to the world of film.
Joyce was apparently a fan of the cinema, until his eyesight deteriorated. It seems likely that he saw the potential of the projected image and the persistence of motion at 24 frames per second, and then attempted to not only transpose film onto paper, but to do something a film, by virtue of its mechanics, technical limitations and budgetary constraints simply cannot do: create a film of epic length that unspools in the reader’s mind.
To adapt “Ulysses” is impossible–but, not to worry, Joyce’s readers have the ability to create their own film with Joyce’s materials, and direct it themselves in a multitude of ways every time they read the novel. And the adventurous reader might even soundtrack their experience of “Ulysses,” as I did by imagining Bloom and Stephen Daedalus’ Dublin wanderings unwinding atop a wow and flutter score by Boards of Canada. To imagine their driftings as BoC’s “Dawn Chorus” stretches around the buildings of Dublin, or as Bloom masturbates during the chapter “Nausicaa” as “The Beach at Redpoint” plays, was a wonderfully satisfying experiment.
What other books so lend themselves to such personal interior cinematic experiences?
The same could be said of “Gravity’s Rainbow,” of course (which is my favorite of the two novels); but while Pynchon requires the entire theater of an underground Europe during World War II, Joyce needed only a single day and the streets and people of Dublin for “Ulysses.” Pynchon could no doubt have written something akin to “Ulysses” that takes place over a single day, but Joyce’s achievement was so singular that he would not have dared.
And that makes Joyce incredibly difficult to surpass in the realm of fiction.