Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Reading this "novel" is like wading through molasses. It's unbelievably slow and turgid -- and all about how the protagonist is a genius, but unrecognized in the world (and yet, what has Haller actually ever done? He's only special because Hesse tells us so). It's hard to believe that this is great literature when we have the likes of Joyce, who can draw us a character going through existential despair in a few pages, and leave you aching.

Any story in "Dubliners" has more depth and feeling than the whole "Treatise of the Steppenwolf", and in fewer pages by far.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

At Swim-two-birds

I just finished reading At Swim-two-birds, and what a phantasmagorical book it was. It's hard to avoid a comparison with Ulysses, particularly the "Oxen of the Sun" and "Cyclops" sections, but O'Brian is taking his own path. Joyce is using the language of epic to describe a quotidian day, and somewhat to obscure what's really going on. It's easy to read those episodes and miss important entrances and exits, or to miss important dialogue. But in At Swim-two-birds, it's never unclear who's talking or what's going on.

Instead, O'Brian is playing around with the whole concept of authorship. Are the self-consciously labelled autobiographical sections really autobiographical? And does it matter? Do they tie into the fictional part? And, if so, which fictional part?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels

It seemed a bit odd to me to have the fifth Thursday Next book be called First Among Sequels, but, in the end, the important thing is to have a fifth TN book, whatever the title. (I do understand that we could consider the first 4 volumes one big story, but I think that Fforde just thought of the title too late to use for the second book)

And what a wonderful book it is. I wasn't super-thrilled with the previous TN book, and I felt like they'd been going a bit downhill, but here Fforde is in prime form. The plot isn't confused, the way the previous one had been, and he finds time to give Thursday some emotionally resonant bits, like her relationship with her imaginary daughter Jenny. It's hard to say if this book is better than The Eyre Affair, which had the advantage of being first, and such a cool idea, but it's certainly the best since then.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


I just finished reading Joyce's Dubliners. I'm not really sure why I've waited this long to read it -- I love Ulysses, and I enjoyed Portrait. Maybe I was worried about being let down -- after all, Joyce matured considerably as a writer between Dubliners and Ulysses.

But I needn't have worried -- Dubliners was fantastic. Joyce is very different here from in Ulysses. In Ulysses, Joyce is largely inward-focused, even, I think, in the most impersonal chapters (the catechism chapter and the Circe section). In most of Dubliners, though, what we get is mostly impersonal. In "Clay", for example, Tom is moved almost to tears at the end of the story, but Joyce doesn't tell us why. Even the first-person narrative stories don't tell us much about what the protagonists are actually feeling.

The exceptions are "Eveline", "The Little Cloud", and "The Dead." I think "Eveline" was one of the weaker stories precisely because it is so inward-focused. It's just so obvious where it's going, and so the epiphany doesn't feel like a true sudden awakening. "The Little Cloud", I think, is starting to move in a different direction from "Eveline". It's true that we see most of the story through the main character's eyes, and we get to see some of his thinking, but it's clear that a lot of what he's seeing isn't necessarily true (for example, he's envious of his friend Gallaher's life, whereas I think the audience is supposed to see Gallaher's lifestyle as meretricious.)

This is a move toward the Joyce of "Portrait", and "The Dead" moves even closer toward the style of that book. "The Dead" is relatively inward-focused -- we largely see things through the protagonist Gabriel's eyes, and get his opinions of people. As in "The Little Cloud," we readers may draw different conclusions from Gabriel's, but "The Dead" is more tight-fisted in giving away non-Gabriel information. Overall, I found "The Dead" exhilirating to read, and the most hopeful story in the book. We see that Gabriel may have the self-awareness and ability to change. Most of the characters attain the self-awareness that they're stuck in a bad place by the end of their stories, but they lack the ability or desire to actually change. Gabriel shows that he's willing to think about his life and others outside of himself. Can he actually make the jump to changing his life?

I've spent most of this post talking about three stories, but what about the others?

It seems to me that in the other stories, Joyce was working with a very flat style of story-telling. He gives us the facts, almost as an impartial observer, and lets us readers decide our relationship to the story. He stacks the deck a bit in his word choice, though. For instance, in one story he uses the word "artistes" several times, till it sticks out like a sort thumb, but he never uses the word elsewhere. Clearly, he's setting up the protagonist as a bit of a poseur, without actually telling us in so many words.

Even though Joyce moved on to other things in Portrait and Ulysses, I think the stories in Dubliners are really wonderful examples of how great a writer Joyce could be, even when not playing with the pyrotechics of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.