Since in recent times the burden of raising Sterne's intellectual content has had to rest entirely on Tim's shoulders with his Booker reviews (and how does he read all these books so quickly, you may ask? Do not be fooled: he bathes in the blood of forty librarians, nightly), I thought I should make a small contribution with this review of a minor classic that I've re-read three or four times now, and still enjoy when I'm in the mood for something relaxing.
Those of you paying attention (and if you're not, why not? This is grade A blogging - you should be taking notes) will have realised from the subject line that I speak of none other than James Joyce's Ulysses, a saucy little page-turner, full of twists and turns: a non-stop rollercoaster thrill ride of a novel. Apparently, many have found it hard to get to grips with Joyce's prose style, but I fail to see how this can be so; the plot is as crammed full of excitement as a constipated bowel.
The story, as I'm sure you're well aware, centers on embittered former detective Stephen Daedalus, thrown off the force on trumped-up corruption charges - and just as well. Unconstrained by the fetters of the law, he's free to hunt down the evil illuminati of the Bilderberg Brotherhood - who, it transpires, are not only responsible for ending his career but are attempting to crack the code to harness the ancient powers of the blarney stone and thereby achieve world domination. Stephen is a hard-drinking, hard-fightin' sonofabitch, it's true, but here the resemblance to the cut-out antiheroes popularised in the current glut of thriller-manques which the likes of Dan Brown and Robert Ludlum perpetrate, ends. Joyce's Daedalus bears a subtle complexity missing from these latter 'writers'; those looking for contemporary parallels need look no further than the achingly conflicted shysters and flatfoots who sidle about the pages of Elmore Leonard's (in whom Joyce's influence has often been noted) ouevre. Witness the single tear Daedalus weeps at his mother's grave, just before he engages in the (rightly) famous whirlwind battle with an entire ninja clan; his rescue of the orphan's pet kitten during the brief but memorable knife fight with the pirate captain.
Joyce's other great strength, of course, has always been his ability to write about believeable women. No male writer since Henry James has been able to produce a female character so convincing as Molly Bloom, and frankly none of James' heroines can kick butt like she can (except maybe Catherine Sloper). Molly is five-foot-seven of tommy-gun toting sexual energy with a heart of gold and heels to die for - like Jane Eyre but with ten times the sass-mouth. If anyone can not only win the hard-bitten Daedalus' heart but help him foil the Brotherhood, it's Molly. It's a pity today's authors are unable to write women with such verisimilitude, and instead resort to creating saccharine girls who've never held a gun, let alone shot a man in the eye at a hundred paces.
But plot, character, pace in Ulysses - all are dictated by the soaring rythms and convolutions of the revolutionary prose forms which made Joyce justifiably famous. To the first-time reader, the apparent stream of conciousness - belying, as it does, a deeply nuanced exploration of the links between linguistics and the human psyche - can seem intimidating; one can hope they persevere. As both examplar of Joyce's genius and enticement to new readers, I can do no better than quote here a small portion from one of my favourite scenes:
Stephen Daedalus threw a brave fist first flying slammed smackwobble into the sewer-mutant's shitstink gob. Hardpressed and roaring, the beast, all tooth-frenzy, all achemouth fury, launches a counterattack mad flailing smell rage at the hero's last stand. Bite claw putrescence versus clean cut vengeance and man but he needed a tall whiskey then. It had his holy head in it's vile clobber claws now, Stephen saw, and all was nigh on death - but wait! Here's Molly, bazooka shoulder-mounted, and a cheeky grin mouthwise, she explodes the shitbeast with a quick trigger pull! Heart hard a-pounding, Stephen wiped mutant chunks from his jacket, and knew it was love.
Beautiful, intelligent, haunting: if you haven't made up your mind to purchase a copy of Joyce's blockbuster after reading that, then there's no hope for you. Go and wallow in a Bryce Courtenay somewhere, I want nothing more to do with you.
Next week: I review Pride and Prejudice 2: Darcy's Revenge.