One of the inescapable features of American cultural life, ca. The Year We Make Contact, is a pervasive mixup of bully and underdog, a mass inability to tell Davids from Goliaths. The stodgier and more corporate of our two Corporate Parties has recently restyled itself as, and adopted a level of professionalism and good manners befitting, a pirate radio station. Our writers set themselves against the powers of television, advertising or—in Sherman Alexie’s recent case—a monopolistic Internet bookstore, and the word everyone uses to describe this is “elitism.” Defenders of small farmers, small presses and small-release movies are assumed to have no other motivations than the desire to self-distinguish.
Perhaps this explains how James Joyce—grimy, toothless, half-blind James Joyce, loving chronicler of a second-rate peoples’ colonized city, a man whose oily fingerprints most early reviewers hoped to scrub from English literature entirely—has become a synonym for “elitist,” and why Ulysses, a book Joyce hoped would be read by janitors and waitresses, has become a symbol of the gated classic, the masterpiece with a No Readers Allowed sign stuck to it. Of James Joyce the socialist, who resented colonization and championed (in his feckless way) mass literacy, we have completely lost sight. We forget that Ulysses owes most of its difficulty to Dublin minutiae—the same sorts of things that will make our blogs “inaccessible” and “exclusive” one hundred years hence. We don’t see how radical it was for Joyce to put a cuckolded Dublin Jew, someone Ernest Hemingway would have treated as a punchline, at the center of seven years’ work.
Declan Kiberd, a professor of Irish literature, has set out to rescue Ulysses from its reputation. The book he has produced in doing so, Ulysses and Us, is entertaining, thoughtful, and informative, and it made me want to put my Netflix subscription on hold long enough to make a second trip through June 16, 1904: surely, all that a book such as this can do. His polemical opening chapters will put you in the right frame of mind to read Ulysses, and his running summary illumines both the whats and whys of each chapter’s various techniques. (It turns out those awful newspaper headlines in “Aeolus” have, by God, a point. Several points, in fact.) First-time readers should proceed directly past Kenner, Burgess or Blamires to Kiberd.
What they will find, if they follow Kiberd’s lead, is a novel almost striking in its relevance to Aught (or Naught) concerns. Unlike, say, T.S. Eliot, Joyce doesn’t see modern life as a wasteland; he pokes fun at the Bohemian pretensions of Stephen Dedalus and makes the bourgeoisie advertising man Leopold Bloom Dedalus’s teacher. In this novel, bits of ad copywriting and sports report turn out to have almost oracular power. Soon enough you start wondering if Twitter and IM might turn out to yield new riches via a Joyce-like act of attention. Joyce’s novel is also, Kiberd argues, oddly concerned with recycling: Modern life produces reams of information but also (cf. Leopold Bloom’s remarks on newspaper-as-fishwrap) much waste. What might be made of it all? Leopold Bloom has some novel waste-recycling schemes, and, under Kiberd’s guidance, we come to see that Joyce did as well: he rescues an entire day from the trashbin.
Joyce finds the underlying beauty of that day most of all in its missed connections. (You wonder what he might have done with Craigslist.) The meeting that didn’t quite happen is a major theme of the novel: Haines and Stephen can’t converse, owing to Haines’s English sense of entitlement; Molly and Leopold, whose thoughts overlap with stunning exactness, haven’t had start-to-finish sex since their son died. Even the meeting between Bloom and Dedalus, businessman and bohemian, is rife with the unsaid, a point only underscored by the mock Q-and-A form in which Joyce reports it. If we accept Kiberd’s account, Joyce’s whole epic, too, has been a sort of dropped connection, a missed opportunity.
There’s no reason to overstate the case: one does hear of middle managers or ski bums taking up the book for a couple months, as someone might take up stitching or triathlons. And certainly some of the people who keep the thing in print must be reading it—a vast personal collection of unread classics just doesn’t have the social cache it once did. (Frankly, these days it seems more likely to turn people off.) But Ulysses’s obscurity seems one of the settled facts of literary discussion; as wonderful as is Kiberd’s attempt to change it, you wonder—all the while hoping not—whether his project won’t represent yet another of literary history’s near-misses.