BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Ed Goggin is a fairly typical James Joyce fan. All it takes is the slightest prodding and he gushes forth with thoughts, theories and wonders about the late writer's confounding, captivating prose.
"I remember my first reading of Ulysses," the Tulsa singer said in an interview last week, "or my first attempt, anyway, because no one gets it on the first try. I was touring Australia, and my bass player nicked it from the Melbourne library. This would have been 1988. I started getting through it, and I was just mouthing the words as I went, completely humiliated that I could not make sense of it. I thought, 'This is like reading a foreign language written in my own.' "
But, like many brave souls who've tackled the tome, Goggin pressed on, finding something in the words that, despite their sometimes baffling complexity, egged him on instead of shutting him out. "It was such a blow to my ego that it became a kind of holy quest to get through it and understand it," he said. "I hear people say all the time that it's the book everybody knows and no one has read, but people who have read it are almost religious about it. In some ways, it's a kind of secular bible. I mean, it covers the whole breadth of human experience in a single day."
Indeed, Ulysses - all 642 pages of it, in my paperback edition - spans a single day, June 16, 1904, making this Wednesday a centennial of sorts. It's a book that has angered, astonished and thrilled its readers, sometimes within a single page.
Irish censors bristled over its publication in 1922 (the same year Americans first met Mickey Mouse), objecting to its frank descriptions of, er, certain basic bodily functions. Critics continue placing it among lists of civilization's best novels.
The poet William Butler Yeats marveled that it was "an entirely new thing," and writer Martin Amis recently claimed that it "defines the modern novel." Virginia Woolf's reaction, however, was dismissive ("Never did I read such tosh!"), and Tennessee Williams didn't advance its cause much by titling his school term paper "Why Ulysses Is Boring."
Few, however, are ambivalent about it, which is why this Wednesday's centennial is somewhat of a marvel. June 16 has, for decades, been celebrated as Bloomsday, named for the novel's central character, Leopold Bloom, a 38-year-old Jewish advertising salesman in Dublin. This week's celebration in that city will draw thousands - including a few Tulsans - to discuss, debate, natter and nitpick every line of Ulysses.
Why are we still buzzing about this book?
"Because Bloom is an epic hero, and he's just like you and me," Goggin said.
"Because it's so high-brow and so low-brow, at the same time. It's like Jon Stewart (on Comedy Central's 'The Daily Show') - it's really intelligent, but with a poop joke."
A democratizing book
Goggin, who named two of his '90s Tulsa pop bands with allusions to Ulysses (Stephen Hero and Mollys Yes, both disbanded), is onto something with that first part. It's the idea of epic hero as everyman that makes Ulysses a compelling and timeless tale.
"Bloom comes to embody the heroism of the everyman," said Sean Lathan, assistant professor of English at the University of Tulsa. He's also the editor of the James Joyce Quarterly, which has published from TU for 41 years.
"As we follow Bloom around Dublin, his everyday experiences become ripe for heroism," Latham said. "Because of the novel's mythic overlay, Bloom's ordinary actions become heroic. It's not Odysseus setting sail, it's Bloom on the toilet."
Ulysses essentially tracks Bloom and a colorful cast on that fateful Thursday as they wander the Irish capital, basically going about their business. Bloom sells an ad, buys some "sweet lemony soap" and has a pint at Davy Byrne's pub, which still exists on Duke Street in Dublin.
It's the interior monologue, though, where the real action of the novel takes place — the stream-of-consciousness struggle of Bloom suspecting his wife of having an affair (all the while scoping chicks on the beach himself), searching for a son who doesn't exist and wrestling not only his own ego but that of his entire nation. The novel is bookended with its other two major characters: Stephen Dedalus in the beginning, the same protagonist from Joyce's previous novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a self-proclaimed writer who hasn't yet written much; and Bloom's wife, Molly, whose famous soliloquy ends the novel with a ringing affirmation.
Just plain folk — Irish ones, as it turns out.
In one sense, particularly in the book's theme of feeling adrift and longing for homecoming, they're not unlike the Dust Bowl refugees chronicled in the songs by Oklahoma's own Woody Guthrie. In the decade after Ulysses was published, Guthrie was rebelling against Tin Pan Alley's sunny, manufactured representations of Americans by writing "real" people into his popular songs. Joyce, similarly, sought to glorify the common man by telling such a tale within the framework of the great epics. The title's namesake, after all, was the hero of Homer's "Odyssey."
"Most basically and pricelessly, he included the common man, his common actions," Amis said of Joyce in a recent interview at Powells.com. "Bloom on the toilet is an incredible breakthrough for the novel, to be written about so beautifully and delicately. That's why Virginia Woolf said it's the sort of novel you'd expect a costermonger to write. It's hilarious to see the snobbish objection to it, but it is a great democratizing book."
The "snobbish objection" to which Amis refers is a natural defense against Joyce's dense symbolism and complex network of literary allusions. In an oft-repeated quip, Joyce once said he constructed Ulysses with the intention of keeping the professors guessing for decades. He succeeded; Latham is one among many professors who will further the speculation at this week's 19th annual Inter national James Joyce Symposium in Dublin.
But it's not just academics who continue facing Joyce's prose. Most of the fanatics retracing Bloom's route through Dublin this week are people such as Goggin who picked up a copy, gave it a shot and were goaded into Joyce's game.
In fact, it's exactly a connection between highfalutin literary snobs and common folk that Joyce was after.
"Ulysses is both deeply snobbish and critical of snobbery," Latham said.
Latham is one who doesn't use the word "snob," or any of its derivations, lightly. He's written extensively on the subject, including his book Am I a Snob? Modernism and the Novel (Cornell Univ., 2003).
"Snobbery is a willful display of cultural capital, the spending of one's own cultural capital in a public way," he said. "It's Stephen in the library at the beginning of the book, performing his theory of Shakespeare, showing off a certain membership in a particular understanding."
Once a reader solves some of Ulysses' puzzles, it's easy to feel admitted into a select — snobbish — membership. Expressing that exclusivitiy means chuckling at oblique comic references with others or, if you're an artist yourself, alluding to the book in your own work. Such allusions which further the snobbery of Ulysses itself.
These allusions to Ulysses are in-jokes — not critical to the understanding of the new work itself but a self-conscious display of some cultural capital. It's Mel Brooks, for instance, naming one of the main characters in "The Producers" Leo Bloom, a hapless fellow who finds enormous success in an impossible piece of literature, or the Bloom family in Tim Burton's film "Big Fish," a family confused by the reliability of the father's stories. It's art-rocker Kate Bush singing a song based on Molly's soliloquy (her 1989 hit "The Sensual World"), or Goggin naming his band Mollys Yes.
"Things like that testify to the celebrity of the text," Latham said. "It's a kind of empty allusion, but it signifies the book's snobbish appeal.
"Joyce was a ruthless parasite," Latham said. "He borrows from Homer all the way up to his contemporaries, including (Oscar) Wilde. It's the pastiche that makes his writing so resonant.
"But part of the reason you don't see even more reworking of Joyce is that Ulysses is still under copyright, which is defended by a tight-fisted estate. That may be why some of the allusions to the novel are so empty, because to have more you really need to quote directly from the text. . . . The irony is that now artists are trying to do exactly what Joyce did, and the estate won't allow it."
Doing our partGoggin continues his minor tributes to his hero and his epic novel. No longer singing full-time (though Mollys Yes is rehearsing for a reunion performance at a benefit in August), he now produces a television show, "Doc Geiger's Outdoor Adventures," which sometimes, according to the credits, is directed by Buck Mulligan.
Mulligan is the first character we meet in the opening of Ulysses.
"I slip those in all the time," Goggin said. "I think no one will get it, but sometimes they do."
Goggin hadn't thought about making Bloomsday plans until we called.
"I'll do my part," he assured. "I'll have a Guinness mustache."
Latham, meanwhile, will be in Dublin for Bloomsday 100. He will be joined by several TU students.
"I'm a little dubious about going now that I've looked at some of the material," he said. "There's a breakfast scheduled to accommodate 10,000 people."
Reading 'Ulysses'? Get help!
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Thinking of trying to read James Joyce’s Ulysses? It could be the ultimate summer project. And that’s just it — make it a project. Ulysses is a mind-boggling, challenging and immensely rewarding read, but I confess: I never would have made it through the crazy thing myself if I didn’t have some help.
My own assistance came in the form of a class, in which Joyce scholar Michael Seidel began our discussion of Ulysses with this wisdom: “Puzzlement should not stop you. It’s built in for a reason.”
But there are several good companion books and Web sites to help navigate the stream of consciousness, as well as the puns, the symbolism, the allusions, the chronology, the ...:
Ulysses Annotated by Don Gifford (Univ. of Calif., 1989) — The ultimate companion to Ulysses, and significantly larger than most volumes of the novel itself, Gifford’s guide offers line-by-line explanations of the subtext as well as basic explanations of historical and literary references.'
James Joyce’s Dublin: A Topographical Guide to the Dublin of Ulysses by Ian Gunn, Clive Hart and Harald Beck (Thames & Hudson, $45) — A new book published this month offers superb maps and analyses to complement the adventure through Dublin. Understanding the layout of the city really helps.
The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses by Harry Blamires (Routledge, 1996) — A sharp running commentary on the plot, a hip and handy companion to the adventure. This is written expressly with the first-timer in mind.
How to Read Ulysses and Why by Jefferson Hunter (Peter Lang, 2002) — A brief but helpful primer to the novel, Hunter’s book offers a plain and simple explanation of Ulysses' relevance.
Reading Joyce’s Ulysses by Daniel R. Schwarz (St. Martin’s, 1987) — A thorough, albeit conservative, analysis of Ulysses with a comprehensive episode-by-episode reader’s guide.
The Brazen Head: A James Joyce Public House (www.themodernword.com/joycehttp://www.themodernword.com/joyce) — A cheery Web site full of interesting articles and links related to Joyce and Ulysses. Read a Joyce biography, see a list of Joyceinspired films, look at some photographs of the crafty author. Join the Joyce email list to touch base with other Joyceans.
The Internet “Ulysses” (robotwisdom.com/jaj/ulysses ) — Everything you need handy for a thorough reading of Ulysses — notes of different editions, a chapter-by-chapter synopsis with maps, Joyce’s own schema used in structuring the novel, plus a discussion area and thousands of links.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.