I've heard it said that one way to improve an artistic skill is to observe the work of others, preferably those who have won great acclaim. Really I have. OK, I'm fairly certain I have, and it certainly sounds like a good idea, doesn't it?
With that in mind, having found a list of the top 100 English language novels of all time on Doug Shaw's home page, I recently decided to read all 100. At best, my writing will improve. At worst, it will be more like those 100 novels, but in a bad way. Most likely of all, my writing will meander along the course of improvement through practice that has been it's wont, and I will at least be exposed to 'culture', whatever that means.
I have a personality flaw, a quirk of the mind, that will not let me start at a random point in that list. Given the always entertaining Professor Shaw's description of Ulysses, I thought it rather better to start at the other end. Alas and alack, the local library appears to have never heard of Booth Tarkington except as the author of a novel upon which a BBC television show was based. They have the television show available on DVD, you see, but no novel. It is, however, apparently one of the seven deadly sins of Library Science to forgo having Joyce in your library.
Much like Professor Shaw, I will regale you with my experiences as I wander through the hallowed halls of greatness. Unlike him, I will do so as I wander those halls, rather than later, once I've had time to digest the culture contained therein.
With that in mind, Ulysses: At this point, I have discovered many things. First, Joyce appears to be writing stream-of-consciousness. The big accomplishment, at least in my eyes, is that he writing the stream of someone else's consciousness. Not just one, either, but two relatively different people. I say relatively different, because I've discovered one commonality between them, one that partially explains Dr. Shaw's difficulty in following the narrative of the book. Neither of the characters is a linear thinker. OK, that's putting it too mildly. The characters are almost frighteningly scatterbrained, compounded in one case by being repressed to a degree that he cannot complete a substantial portion of his own thoughts, diverging instead into rambles about religion, self-recrimination and death. Occasionally he does so in Latin and French. In the other case, the character is equally repressed, but in that case the repression is expressed by self-censoring of his own naughty thoughts, but only when they're about other people. He goes on a long, lovingly described flight of fancy about a bath he's going to have later, and the gratification he has planned for that bath.
OK, Joyce is having an effect on me. My own meandering writing style is becoming less concise by the moment. Perhaps that's not the effect I was looking for.
Another reason, perhaps a larger one, that I can see a reader having a problem with the book. The book apparently predates Strunk's Elements of Style. It also appears to predate modern punctuation conventions regarding quoting speech. 87 pages into this 767 page book and nary a quotation mark to be seen. Spoken words are preceeded by a dash, but no indication is given as to when the speaking ends. 'He said' isn't a reliably indicator, as on at least two occasions thus far someone has said 'he said', after which the quote they supply is given in italics.
Overall, between the odd quotation punctuation, the stream of consciousness, and the repressed, non-linear thought processes of the two main characters, I can see where the book might be considered a wee bit of a hard read. I've often compared reading to eating. Pratchett is a literary Morimoto, the total package. Robson is TastyCake, I feel guilty for loving it but can't stop until it's gone. Cherryh is toffee, I love it but it tires my jaws out. King is searingly spicy tam noodles, I love them, but I will regret it later. Brin is a seven course gourmet vegan meal, I feel like I ought to like it, and want to like it, and think my not liking it is a fault in me. Joyce is like chewing on ramen, liberally spiced with whole vitamin, diet and caffiene pills. I'm told it's good for me, will help me build muscle and lose fat, that it's nutritionally sound and has everything a growing boy needs.
To put it another way; I spend 15 minutes warm up on a stair master. I spend 60 minutes of cardio on a elliptical machine. Since I started reading Ulysses, I no longer notice the complaints from my body; my mind is too busy moaning about reading this thing that is begging, pleading, screaming for a copy editor to put some gorram punctuation in.
Still, I'm not done the book. It might get better. I might get used to it. His prose, while a touch lurid for a modern audience, is at least highly descriptive. His stream of consciousness is very stream-ey, although it delves into singsong and acoherence a bit much for my taste. Maybe that's the problem; I'm too much of a linear thinker to really empathize with the characters.
We shall see. We shall see.
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