I am preparing to interview author Frank Delaney about his new podcast, Re: Joyce, a weekly look at Joyce’s magnum opus, Ulysses. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this book. What I love, I find inspiring. Joyce was an immensely elegant writer, and the exacting, painterly way he rendered the world remains a kind of standard for me. He took a poet’s precision and applied it to prose and the results remain unique nearly ninety years after Ulysses’s publication. However, I also find some of it impenetrable. With one chapter in particular I had to throw up my hands and move on. Plus, I don’t speak Gaelic or Latin or Greek or much French, so there is that too. Still, it is more like a poem than a novel, so I am willing to forgive. What’s more, it wasn’t the language alone that inspired me. This book is a modernist work in every way: that is, not much happens and everything is shown, and never, ever told. While the story follows vaguely the storyline of The Odyssey, mostly what we see is Stephen and Bloom walking around thinking about stuff.
Which is why I love it. When I discovered this book, I was a young man, and most of what I was doing was walking around thinking about stuff. In fact, I would say that is what the majority of the human race does. So when Joyce decided to make the mundane heroic, he was saying that everything mattered—snot rags, and bowel movements, and pear soap. Everything deserved equal attention.
I love this idea still. I write books where lots of big things happen all the time, but my life remains decidedly Joycean: I get up, I write, I talk to people, I walk around, I think about stuff. And all of it matters. All of it matters because you do not need to walk through Hades to face death, and you do not need to battle a Cyclops to be brave. A missed phone call, a good-bye kiss, or a dinner conversation are often enough to summon all the meaning in our lives, all the regret, all the love, all the yearning. The whole of your life, after all, exists within a single moment, for the here and now is all we ever have, and the stream that is your consciousness is the continuous narrative of your life, sometimes fearful, sometimes courageous, sometimes profane, but always meaningful.