on April 15, 2002
... The critics rave about Ulysses. Many readers who've slogged all the way through proclaim it to be the greatest book of the 20th Century. Put me in the camp of those who thinks it's a pile of gibberish.
It's the only book I've ever read that still had me scratching my head after three chapters. Is it a novel? A series of unrelated short stories? A poem? Apparently, only intellectuals can tell.
I was taught that writing is the process of communicating with readers. This book fails miserably at that. I honestly can't summarize the plot. I didn't understand it. Maybe I'm stupid, but I think the fact that Joyce repeatedly breaks into long stretches of French and Latin and his own made-up words--none of which I understand--has something to do with it.
I give the book two stars because of Joyce's obvious mastery of vocabulary, and because maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm too ignorant to comprehend the genius. But I doubt it. To me, reading enjoyment shouldn't be this hard. --Christopher Bonn Jonnes, author of Wake Up Dead.
on August 2, 2001
James Joyce is a genius. Let's all say it together, loud and proud. Maybe he is so much of a genius that he has created in a novel, Ulysses, a work that is so far above anyone's heads that since the majority of the reading public doesn't understand, well then, by God, it must be supernova brilliant. Was it just me? Did my intellectual shortcomings not allow me to truly enjoy this work that makes everyone's top 10 books of the century list? Or was Joyce just playing around? A writer with mastery of the language decided to fool around a little and release a novel that is an exercise in experimentation on what you can do with language but nothing really more. To harbor my fragile intellectual ego, that's the theory I'm going with. Greatest book of all time or not, I just didn't get it.
This book is supposed to be about Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus and a day in the life of Dublin in 1904. I really had to read the other reviews or cliff notes to be able to discern what happens on that day despite reading the book thoroughly. I know I sure didn't get it from the book. If cryptic meaning, having to read other books so you understand the book you're reading, and spending months slogging through a book is what your looking for in a read, by all means tackle Ulysses. Should we have to labor so hard to enjoy a book? I don't think so. The unique language and wordplay stand out above the rest of the white noise fray making this book redeemable, like a 783 page poem with no plot, if you can imagine enduring something like that.
Maybe Joyce, from an Irish heaven, 70 year later is having the last laugh, as the intellectual world hails his "playing around" as THE modern masterpiece. Maybe it takes an English Literary Doctorate and many years to get enjoyment out of this book. I don't have either though, so the enjoyment wasn't there. Joy is the reason I read. I didn't find it with Ulysses.
on July 18, 2001
Imaginative literature can't afford to dissociate itself from its readership because the "lay-reader" is the very rationale for its existence! Joyce is not a model to be followed by any writer. Granted that it is the reader's prerogative to choose and pick - it is not up to the author of imaginative literature to be selective about his readers. This extremely gifted man had set out to surpass everything produced in literature up to his time, and if his goal had been tedium to the max, he achieved it. I am the first to give Joyce due credit for the linguistic scope and the skill with which he engineered the plot in Ulysses - but answer me honestly: does any of the characters come to live the way - say - Tolstoy manages to animate his people with a much more primitive technique? I seriously doubt it. Joyce the human being had limitations which got in the way of Joyce the writer which prevented Joyce the artist from living up to the full potential of Joyce the talent. Style is a direct reflection of an artist's temperament - obviously the writer of "Ulysses" could never make up his mind what kind of style it is going to be - the book lacks unity and appears in places unnecessarily oracular due to the style, but not necessarily for the subject matter, which can be looked up in a good reference! And if that wouldn't be bad enough, more than once Joyce went off on a rather revealing tangent: take for instance the masturbation scene in ÒNausicaa.Ó Superbly written as it is, it gives us the whole deficiency of Joyce in a nutshell. He imitates the presumptuous and pompous phrasing in certain fashion magazines of the period, but just tell me to what end? Is it to poke fun on the cliche beset thought-process of the crippled girl? Well I fail to see the joke, this is just cruel. Satire either attacks a subject that has the capacity to bite back, or it is merely an act of a certain and in JoyceÕs time very fashionable "anti-philistine" snobbery. Or perhaps the only reason for writing this way was that Mr. Joyce wished to flaunt his stylistic versatility? I am not objecting to have readers making an effort to get into a difficult text - not at all. But the reward should offer better things than the gratification of a crossword puzzle. We talk about participation. Participation in the artist's temperament to see things the way they present themselves to the artist. This does not prevent us from disagreeing. (I disagree with many things Tolstoy had to say when he couldnÕt resist to step on his collapsible soap box. But I also appreciate his artistic genius whenever he spares us the lecture.) To give another example: Compare ÒOxen of the SunÓ in Ulysses with the moments when women break their water in TolstoyÕs novels. Giving birth is not a linguistic exercise. Joyce's choice of style (in fact a display of 60 different styles and modes of speech) is just clever but completely detached from the event. What is to be expected at the very least, is a certain coherence of artistic vision, which I find utterly lacking in Joyce. He can't make up his mind, so he throws at us all the imitative bits and pieces from a (very talented) schoolboy's exercise book. Ulysses is the portfolio of a writer's versatility - it is not a work of art. When I was much younger and naive, I had read every single line of Joyce, including his letters and poems and even Finnegan's Wake (what a waste of time). I can't help it, the man was an amateur for all his life, a typical tinkerer and home improvement guy who probably never really found the kind of subject matter that could have distracted him from his self-consciousness. His short stories wouldn't be barely remembered these days if there wasnÕt his name under the title. They are imitation pieces, ventriloquistic exercises, and pretty flat and lifeless if held against Chekhov and Kipling, or Flaubert and Kathleen Mansfield. Apparently "Dubliners" and "Portrait" and especially ÒUlyssesÓ were written by an author who went on a quest for his own style. If Finnegan's Wake eventually was the place where the eagle landed, then, I am sorry to say, the game wasn't worth the candles. Joyce had tons of talent to burn, but something went seriously wrong here. I am all for modern art, and consider "post modern" a phony contradiction in terms. But lesser talents accomplished more - DosPassos, O'Neil, Kafka, Proust, Marianne Moore, Auden, Hemingway, Nabokov, they all have their moments, even clowns like Bukowski and Douglas Adams (who is a linguistic genius in his own right.) Borges could put in 3 lines what took a Joyce 30 strenuous pages without ever achieving a comparable impact. In the end, all I ask for, is the readerÕs honesty. Don't just think something is great because a certain establishment says so. Real great artists (like Dickens or Shakespeare) can do without this sort of approval. Don't make it a mission to reach for an icon for no other reason than seeing it hanging high. A failure is a failure even if it is a great man's failure. And Joyce wasn't made of the stuff of greatness. But this is a different story. Approaching Joyce is an experience not unsimilar to ÒThe Approach to Al-MuÕtasim.Ó
on May 15, 2001
Joyce had sometimes been called a writerÕs writer. One reviewer even suggested we should give Ulysses the benefit of a doubt, for the same reason we uneducated lay-folk use to accept on sight modern physics or EinsteinÕs Relativity theory. Now I can think of all sorts of definitions for the meaning and purpose of imaginative literature -- to serve as the arcane Cabala for the initiates of a secretive cult is not one of them. If a novel lacks what it takes to reach every conceivable kind of reader, regardless whether it is to be received as a pleasure or a nuisance, than it is a failure, plain and simple. I may detest what I read -- even successful novels donÕt come with a gun held to your head -- but Ulysses is simply an empty shell, nothing left to form an opinion or taste either way. A bad writer is just bad, because he canÕt cope adequately with his task. But there is also a possibility that I may detest a good writer for the waste of skill and talent on something I deem to be an unworthy or badly misguided effort. So even if I may not like what he has to say, I can still be impressed by the beauty and cogency of his delivery. I donÕt like it, but the man has something to say, and he says it well. But this here is different: can anybody tell me what else it possibly could be than the vain demonstration of stylistic skills from the portfolio of a great talent -- with absolutely nothing to say? God knows, I am all for a reader who pays to a good authorÕs work the respect it deserves and pitches in a bit of his own effort. This should entitle a good reader to carry home something worthwhile. However it is not just the Ulysses, I got the same impression from the entire work of James Joyce, even from his early poems. Except for a precious few luminous moments (the travel of young Steven in the train compartment, the damp and creeping cold atmosphere on the rugby pitch in the ÔPortraitÕ) it really amounts to little more than an exercise in the rhetorics of imaginative writing. It must be me, but I canÕt help feeling something amateurish in all this contrived effort. Call Joyce a genius, if you like, we all know he was determined to be remembered as the outstanding writer of the 20th century. And we do! We remember his legend the same way we remember Cervantes or Kafka before we open their books. An aura surrounds ÔUlysses,Õ and this awe may even carry us through a few passages and purple patches, but thatÕs where the comparison ends. Take away the halo from Cervantes and Kafka and you still enjoy a robust read -- I doubt the same can be said of Joyce. He had the gift, and he knew it, but even his consummate admiration for Ibsen didnÕt help him to find for himself a story worth telling, that is a story which would make his talent shine and captivate the reader. Technically, Ulysses is a superb piece of narrative engineering. A myriad of leitmotifs and themes entwine, separate and meet again each delivered in a variety of different voices and styles. So, ok, a letter torn to tiny shreds into the river carries to a corresponding theme five chapters later, a piece of soap bought in the morning becomes an important item in late afternoon, a galaxy of town-folks revolve around each other and do their daily chores, though mostly in pubs, hospital-canteens and hostelries -- a tat one-sided should it ever become necessary to reconstruct Dublin from scratch. So our Mr. Bloom masturbates over the sight of a crippled girl -- the joke to write parts of this particular passage in the pseudo-elegant journalese of a turn of the century fashion magazine is lost on me: is it supposed to poke fun on the clichŽ beset thoughts in the poor girlÕs mind? In fact Joyce ventriloquizes a lot; all over the book the English language is taken through her paces like a dressage horse, nobody can deny the authorÕs brilliance, and sometimes he even presents a superb artistic flash, like the gold coins the principle is handing out to Stephen. Yet even here I see the author glancing sideways under his eyelids: are we really looking? Do we catch the moment? (Kafka did such things in his sleep.) So what does all this amount to, on some 800 pages, except to small change? Yes, Ulysses has style, a whole museum of styles to be exact, and nothing but style. After you finish it, if you make it through, you will leave it behind like a confused dream, and forget it just as soon.
on March 21, 2001
There is often much talk about how to best "get" this book. Many will suggest various commentaries, some will suggest several "deep" reads.
The best way to come to understand this book, its place in the history of literature, and the excessive praise it has earned in its reviews is to read one simple fable: "The Emperor's New Clothes" by Hans Christian Andersen.
If you are looking for an example of great literature, don't look here. If you are looking for a model to improve the precision of your own thought and expression, don't look here. If you want to come to understand a great joke and laugh yourself into hysterics at the sheer buffoonery of modern life, read this book.
Having made it through this sick joke of a book and coming to know it thoroughly, I've been in a position to enjoy fits of uncontrolled laughter when I listen to fans of this book begin to yammer. It's a great inside joke that you can really only be in on if you've read the book and understand something of its place in literary history. Having read this silly tripe and listening to self-important types discuss it is more flat out silly than getting stoned out of your brain and watching the South Park movie.
As H. C. Andersen taught us, if we simply cannot find any meaning in something it is entirely possible there is no meaning there. And just because other people claim to see meaning in this book, or fleas in a flea circus, or clothes on a naked emperor... well, you get the idea.
Hence, I have to give this book at least 2 stars. You will be rewarded by reading it. Even if not in the way this book's proponents promise.
on August 14, 2000
Clearly, Joyce's work is a tour de force, an everyman's epic day hidden in grand literary style. The langauge varies from beautiful to impenetrable, with allusions galore. The themes were shocking in 1922, and portrayed in all of life's gory detail. But is it worth it?
The time involved in reading (let alone understanding) this book is enormous, easily on the order of fifty hours. What does this steep admission price buy? Simply put, not enough. Their are a multitude of insights one can draw from Bloom's day, but their are none that aren't easier to gleen from other writings. The language, while beautiful at times, does not justify the investment, in my opinion. For a passionate lover of English langauge and literature, this book may be for you. But for the everyday reader, who reads for simpler pleasures and knowledge, you will probably get little out of this book but the right to say 'Yes, I have read Ulysses, Yes!'
on September 1, 2000
I didn't think I'd be writing books reviews 30 years after leaving school. But... There is a certain class of author -- George Meredith was one of the first to express this viewpoint -- who has the opinion "if you can't figure out what this is all about in the first chapter, you are intellectually unworthy to read my book." That is arrogance of the first order. Joyce, Faulkner (in some cases), and others of the "I'm too deep for you, dummy" school have massive good press from academics. Books like this keep them in tenure, one can devote a whole semester to explaining what is happening on Bloomsday. If you don't have to read this book, you shouldn't bother. Good books don't have to be 'literary', just have to be readable and make sense. There are of course good moments in Ulysses, especially if you have ever been to an Irish pub, but you really have to dig for them.
on November 3, 2000
I knew there was going to be trouble when I picked up the book in a St Louis airport book store and someone said something about me being a glutton for punishment. On the declaration of its being the greatest book of the 20th century, I had to see what the fuss was all about. And I still wonder, 167 pages or so later. Usually after about a hundred pages I can sort of get the "gist" of a document, and I will admit to not having a degree in literature or Irish studies. From all the praise, I am wondering if I have a defect in my brain. But I will admit, I don't get it. If this is supposed to be some mental time capsule, a masterful expose of stream-of-consciousness, then fine. Must be an acquired taste. Back to the Archie comic books I guess.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 13, 2000
A couple things: First off, everyone's heard of Ulysses, and everyone has their own notions of what they expect from a book, what they expect from Ulysses in particular, and how they feel about experimental literature in general (though by today's standards Ulysses appears vastly less experimental than, say, Finnegan's Wake). So basically, if you don't think you'll like Ulysses, you probably won't. And no, it's not a casual read. If you're willing to do some homework, though, which in my case included some Homer, Shakespeare, Freud, and Irish history (though I could go on), it just might be worth your time (lots of time) to slog through all 900+ pages of the thing. But that's just my two cents.
The real reason I'm writing this review is to steer people away from the 'reader's edition' of Ulysses--that's the reason for the two stars. This is not the novel as Joyce intended--it is an adaptation by Danis Rose, and reflects what he (Rose) thought was 'accurate.' Though the changes he makes are minor--and, in all fairness, may correct oversights made by Joyce--I am offended by the idea that an editor has the ability to take an important and influential work and make changes as he sees fit. The fact that this edition was ever put to print debases the role of the artist (any artist), and reflects the increasing trend toward commercialization and dumbing-down of art in favor of turning a profit.
So--is Ulysses the greatest artistic achievement in any medium, ever? I don't know, and whether I think so is irrelevant anyway. But if you want to find out for yourself, please, PLEASE, at least read Joyce's words, not Rose's.
on October 8, 1999
I know I am only 13 years old and I do not wish to offend anybig Ulysses fans, but I had no idea what this book was on about? I will reread it perhaps in 30 years and appreciate it more. However, for the time being, those who proclaim it the greatest book of the century only have to read any of The Lord of the Rings, Catch-22, 1984 or To Kill a Mockingbird to see they are sadly mistaken END