A leading Spanish postmodernist novelist paraphrases, summarizes, and cites James Joyce's modernist "mistresspiece," most-loved of all that Irishman's works. Ríos imagines a trio who meet to converse about Ulysses. The first is a mature reader, A; he is joined by a younger woman, B; third is an elderly critic, C. They gather in "The Ulysses Museum" and enter eighteen rooms as if in an academic library. Chaperoned by Professor Ludwig Jones, they wander through the book's eighteen dense chapters. They study under the tutelage of a silent guide, the `'man with the Mackintosh" whose computer projects overviews of the schemata used by Joyce in integrating Homeric correspondences into his tale of one day and night in the lives of three Dubliners and those whom they meet, dream of, contend with, and wonder about.
It offers an easy pace and conveys information with an affectionate tone. Nick Caistor's smooth translation reveals few quotable lines from Ríos in what for English-speakers becomes a tertiary source, but the structure of first a summation of each chapter's contents and then "passageways" that list a few observations made by the four (or one silent, five) observers in the Museum allows, in relatively few pages, a quick guided tour through its contents.
Especially for those fearful of more scholarly treatments of Ulysses, Ríos provides a neat compression of much academic insights, crammed into a small, portable, and accessible companion. Not only beginners may benefit with Ríos as a guide. Study of this novel, as I was warned in college, can happily consume one's spare time over a lifetime. In House, I learned a dozen fresh insights about the novel.
This book failed to rise or fall to parody. It's not as funny as the advance buzz makes it out to be, but it does introduce a hesitant reader to its mysteries, if in a more sober tone than I expected. While marketed as a send-up of the scholarship surrounding Joyce, it serves rather to document and transmit its findings efficiently. Ríos does adapt, as with "Aeolus," "Nausicaa," "Eumaeus," and "Penelope," the styles of the prose that Joyce celebrated and caricatured. Ríos's own take on the Joyce industry may be less "slapstick" than the promotional material promises; I found its delivery rather steady. As any critic of Joyce without a sense of humor has found the wrong text to explore over a lifetime, the offhand remarks made sporadically by Ríos's team of academically bent visitors were rather anodyne, on par with anyone who has lived and slept with, as one does, this text over any period of time.
Therefore, this fictional conceit fits better as a friendly, if a bit garrulous, companion. Any work that reminds us of the mastery and mystery of this modernist masterful "mistresspiece" succeeds in this measure. The essential function of The House of Ulysses is to direct our gaze away from its own pages. Holding a guidebook, we learn. Then we put it down, to look up (or down) again at its own inspiration. (P.S. See my reviews of David Pierce's "Reading Joyce" and Declan Kiberd's "Ulysses & Us" for two recent, if more academic, commentaries worth your while.)