I finished Ulysses as the sun was going down on 2009. I want to write something long about it, but till I find the thyme I'll just post a few notes here.
Alright, first off, this book is to normal novels as Shakespeare is to elementary school Christmas pageants. The latter are good--or cute--but the former are works of nigh-unachievable genius, of enough depth to last centuries.
Second: if you haven't read Ulysses yet, what you've heard about it probably consists of 1) the book takes place during a single day, and 2) nothing extraordinary happens. That's essentially what I learned about the book, indirectly, over the past handful of years. But that's a bad assessment. That's like saying the Moonlight Sonata is for the piano and doesn't have any lyrics. Ulysses isn't about an unextraordinary day--it's the opposite of that. It's a baptism for prose.
Here's an anecdote for how to approach Ulysses. One day in the 19-teens, a buddy of Joyce's said to the man himself, "Some of your contemporaries think two books a year an average output." To which Joyce replies "Yes, but how do they do it? They talk them into a typewriter. I feel quite capable of doing that if I wanted to do it. But what's the use? It isn't worth doing."
I disagree that it's not worth doing, but I get his point. To Joyce, a story is something you tell your child before they go to bed, or to your buddies at the bar. A novel, though, is a work of art, and it should be distinct from speech. With Ulysses, Joyce took prose from its rank as stylized speech and promoted it to poetry. The chapters are structured like symphonic movements, echoing their distinct styles and themes forwards and backwards into one another. This is different from a straightforward story like Harry Potter, where the only thing that separates one chapter from another is the plot.
I also have a gripe with the stream-of-conscious label that surfaces in every introductory conversation about the book. Through the story the thoughts that flash across the characters' minds also flash across the pages of the book, but that's an awfully limited (and boring) explanation of how the book's written. In fact, this is another way Joyce separates his story from the rest of the rabble: most books on writing will tell you the most important part of style is to not have one--writing unobtrusively is the safest bet for a readable story. Thinking of Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling is wonderful at this kind of writing, which is one reason why her stories are so readable. She puts the images right in our heads for us, almost like TV. She's smooth as butter.
James Joyce isn't. He makes you work for your $13.99, and sometimes it's a pain in the ass.
But to be fair, it's really only novelists that are hounded for allowing themselves to be seen working the strings behind the curtain. We don't look at Rembrandt or Michelangelo or Tarantino hoping to not find the essence of their personalities in their work. If Tarantino's movies were as singularly story-driven as Peter Jackson's or Stephen Spielberg's, I might not've gotten Inglourious Basterds for Christmas from my dear friend Matthew. And likewise: Da Vinci's not as realistic an artist as my iPhone, but I still likes him.
Which all means, since I don't think I've mentioned it yet, that Ulysses isn't just about a few Dubliners walking about the city on some unremarkable day in June, 1904, nor is it narrated just through their eyes. One episode is a symphony. One is a play. One is "a nineparted episode without divisions introduced by a Sallustian-Tacitean prelude, then by way of earliest English alliterative and monosyllabic and Anglo-Saxon, then by way of Mandeville, then Malory's Morte d'Arthur, then the Elizabethan chronicle style, then a passage solemn, as of Milton, Taylor, Hooker, followed by a choppy Latin-gossipy bit, style of Burton-Browne, then a passage Bunyanesque, after a diarystyle bit Pepys-Evelyn, and so on through Defoe-Swift and Steele-Addison-Sterne and Landor-Pater-Newman until it ends in a frightful jumble of Pidgin English, nigger English, Cockney, Irish, Bowery slang and broken doggerel [which is] linked back at each part subtly with some foregoing episode of the day and, besides this, with the natural stages of development in the embryo and the periods of faunal evolution in general." The last one is a single sentence in five or six paragraphs, 40 pages long.
Ulysses isn't an easy read, but given that all the conversations I've ever had about the book have consisted of bragging about having read the thing, I think a new approach has to be established. I shall take this opportunity to my stab at it.
Ulysses is a novel about how utterly remarkable a day is if we apply significance to it. He uses as his setting Dublin, and gives it to us through the eyes of Jamesapold Joycebloom, et al.
So how and why does he apply significance to it?
The way I see it is, Joyce was a Catholic, and everything about him as an artist can be understood through Catholicism. So what's Catholicism? A church with longstanding traditions and an incredible attention to extravagance and detail.
If you look at Ulysses like a Mass, it all comes together. At least it does for me. Ulysses is complex is its delivery (like the Mass) but it's very simple at its center (also like the Mass). Masses congregate the faithful around the word of God, to offer confession and forgiveness of sins, and they take their good old time doing it with all the standing and sitting, the kneeling and praying, the singing and bell-ringing, the eating of bread and sipping of wine, the shaking of hands and passing of envelopes. The God of the Mass is God, through his son Jesus Christ. The god of Ulysses is James Joyce, through his sons Leopold and Stephen. Ulysses shows us Dublin circa 1904, but it takes damn near 800 pages doing it with all the lists, themes, obscure details, inner notions, wordgames, fantasies, hallucinations, styles, moods, colors, body parts, and references to the Odyssey so as to match the exact layout of the part and place of the day we're experiencing at the time.
Yes: Ulysses at its core is about Joyce and how cool he is. Stephen is young-Joyce and Bloom shares many of the traits of older-Joyce. Molly Bloom is probably verymuch like Nora Joyce, and most of the rest of the characters in the book were connected to Joyce in some real-life way. Joyce didn't write stories to make stuff up--he wrote them to show the world around him in a legitimate, artistic portrait. Joyce always saw himself as a martyr and the subject of conspiracies, and so he made a book about the people he knew in Dublin functioning around two aspects of himself, who fight the world around them inch by inch as Telemachus and Ulysses.
It's conceited, but Joyce was a conceited guy. But so was Beethoven. It doesn't lessen the effect of their art. Ulysses is certainly the most complex (readable) book of the last century--if not ever--and it deserves a place in every lit major's undergrad canon. It can be a gradschool book, but it doesn't need to be. Anyone can read the thing with a Sparknotes handy: it's coming on 90 years since it was published, so enough highbrow folks have sat around considering the thing for a bunch of handy guides to've been published by now.
Anyways, I thought it was as good a book as humans were likely to produce before the asteroid. You might give it a go.