A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

Category: Fiction

Confessions of a Reluctant Ulysses Fan

by evanmcmurry

* Originally published on June 16, 2012 on Ology.com, republished here.

Happy Bloomsday, world! And while it didn’t look like any of you out on Ave A last night were busy forging in the smithees of your souls the uncreated conscience of your race, you should at least take today to celebrate the better of the two Irish holidays—St. Patrick’s day having now become Green Mardi Gras—by cracking the copy of Ulysses on your shelf, or at the very least eating with relish the inner organs of beast and fowls.

In the spirit of honesty I will openly confess that there is no way on God’s big green dumb earth that I ever would have finished Ulysses had I not taken a graduate school class devoted, as explicitly stated on its syllabus, to the completion of Ulysses. I’d tried reading it prior to that, and like so many frustrated, busy people before me had gotten promptly lost in the pretentious fog of Chapter Three and decided there were better things to do with my life.

I question that decision now that I’ve finished the book. Ulysses is so big, so hungry and capacious and commodious a text, that it contains all of life within it, or the most of life that could possibly fit into the novel form, and comes as close as any text I’ve ever read to recreating the whole of existence. There may not be better things to do with your life, as Ulysses is just about life itself.

It is also the most pretentious book ever written, literally and objectively: Joyce used Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Hamlet as conceits, and aspired to write a text that would be their equal. That’s a pretty big pretense. Times 800 or so pages, divided into chapters that do not mirror but interact with the travels of the great fabricator Odysseus, each with its own literary and linguistic style meant to both perfect and exhaust its respective form, and you have the biggest pretense in literary history.

If this sounds tiring, it is. Joyce himself was so depleted after the completion of the manuscript that he didn’t write another word for a year. Modernist writing was so spent after Ulysses that it began a decades-long period of retraction, via the increasingly narrow works of Beckett, into the nouveau roman, which could slip between couch cushions. Whether Joyce so perfected the form of the novel that he rendered it obsolete—Chandler’s definition of a classic—or whether he simply made fiction writing a drag is debatable, but there’s no real debating that the modern novel was enervated as a result of Joyce’s monstrous iteration of it.

But life too is exhausting, and Ulysses, a celebration of mimesis in all its capacities, wears us out in service of introducing us to Leopold Bloom, for whom modern existence is a wonderful and trying and ceaseless experience. Bloom must eat, Bloom must sell advertisements, Bloom must keep at bay the knowledge that his wife Molly is to cheat on him that day with dandyish Blazes Boylan, who constantly appears at the periphery of Bloom’s vision, darting in and out of doorways in his bespoke suit. Bloom must also carry with him constantly the memory of his son, the death of whom has frozen his marriage in a celibate stasis.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Bloom must contend with being Jewish in an Ireland corrupted by anti-Semitism, and must prove his Irishness to the boors of the burgeoning nationalist movement, and he must also eat again—Bloom consumes as much as Stephen Dedalus does not—and continually assemble his existence out of these fragments on a moment by moment basis, pummeled on all sides by the 20th century concepts of nationality and class and gender and race, ideas that come at him at bars and on the street, from inside his head and from advertisements on the walls. Joyce presents existence as a panoramic assault, and if reading Ulysses is a challenge that takes twelve academic weeks, that’s all the more to render the struggle of Bloom’s daily life.

When Bloom finally arrives home, however, the novel settles into its best and most beautiful chapters. The relief, on both the part of the protagonist and the reader, is palpable. The last hundred pages or so of Ulysses are some of my favorite in literature: not only do the charades of the Citizen and sinister frivolity of Buck Mulligan no longer nag the book, but the language itself, burdened for 700 pages with both the conceits of its many tasks and the dull realist duty of carrying its characters through the text, finally relaxes into some of the most enjoyable experimental writing ever written. As much as Ulysses was mimetic of the challenge of existence for 16 chapters, its last two are embodiments of the wonder and joy of it, all the more so for having come after one of the most grueling reading experiences you’ll ever encounter.

I’ve never bought the whole Bloom-Dedalus father-son thing—it’s one too many conceits in a novel already bursting with them—but the modest, compromised reunion of Molly and Leopold, sleeping foot to face in their marriage bed, one of them fresh from adultery, struck me not only as strangely sweet, but as a culmination of the book’s long rail against the ideological constrictions of modern life. From page one, bit characters have proposed to Bloom and Dedalus teleology after teleology, a prescript of actions according to the scriptures of history or Catholicism or Ireland or the British empire. Everybody must act a certain way to bring about the kingdom of Heaven, or must ascribe to a certain set of behaviors to bring about the Irish revolution, and so on. Nobody in this world is free: everybody is beholden to some overarching set of ideas that leads them toward some historical end.

This necessity for a linear progression to an end—this order with which the nineteenth century had been obsessed—was so encoded in the language of Joyce’s time that it was indistinguishable from language itself. In a narrative, be it the narrative of a realist novel or the History in which Catholics and Irish nationalists and British officials project their telos, words are nothing but symbols in a relationship, meaningful only in the event that they advance a cause towards an end. Words, to the ideologies assaulting Bloom, must be in service of something, be it God or Ireland or Britain. Like people, language is not free.

Joyce gleefully overturns this convention, smashing words together into little combustions of sound and resonance that refer to nothing but their own expression of themselves. The novel heaps with neologisms—it weighs in at 265,000 words, far fewer than the Fountainhead, for perspective’s sake, but is made up of well over 30,000 distinct words, far more than the Fountainhead. Joyce invents words like shamewounded and peacocktwittering and shellcocoacolored. When Molly says that Ben Dollard has a “base barreltone,” she makes a play on bass—she doesn’t think much of Dollard, hence “base”—makes a play on baritone by including the image his voice evokes in her, that of a barrel—and combines these multiple meanings, images, and symbols into one little description of a bit character. The phrase is a celebration of euphony and multitudinous meaning. It doesn’t refer to any hierarchical structure like the Church or the state or the plight of the Irish people, and it doesn’t advance the plot of the book. It’s a linguistic revolt, refusing to do anything but ring.

Ulysses has thousands of these moments, but none so wonderful as Leopold and Molly Bloom falling asleep together at the end. The Blooms are not a happy couple, and I remember a fierce debate in my Joyce class as to whether they’d still be married come next June 16. Their desires are irresolvably different: even as Leopold is considering bringing Stephen Dedalus around as a son, Molly is thinking of sleeping with him. But still they combine, like shamewounded or peacocktwittering or shellcocoacolored or base barreltone, into a momentary creation of private meaning. Joyce combined words into a euphonic revolt, against the linear compulsion of the ideologies suffocating Ireland, and he made Leopold and Molly into the literal embodiment of that rebellion. Molly and Leopold come together at the end of Ulysses like a brand new word. To Joyce, this was the most wonderful thing human beings could do.

Publishing Is a Meritocracy: A Play in One Act

by evanmcmurry

The kicker of this graph:

Screen Shot 2014-11-01 at 1.39.18 PM

What are the odds the other one was about “a young, adrift waitress working at an upscale New York restaurant,” too?

Oh, and it turns out later that the author already had an agent. What a great story!

What Happens When You Treat Novels Like Restaurants, Part Two

by evanmcmurry

In this 5,000-word piece about a novelist who was trolled by a book blogger on Goodreads, books are used as props, as weapons, as gifts, as status symbols, but never once is a book ever actually read.

Your occasional reminder that just as Yelp has nothing really to do with restaurants or food, Goodreads has almost nothing to do with the act of reading.

HuffPost Editor Calls You a Liar for Your 10 Novels List

by evanmcmurry

HuffPost tech editor Alexis Kleinman thinks your 10 Novels That Shaped Me lists are bunk:

No, your favorite book is not “The Sound and the Fury.” No, you did not finish “Infinite Jest.” “One Hundred Years Of Solitude”? You read that in 10th grade. I know because I was in that English class with you.

Yeah ok.Tthis is as much categorical error as it is strawman. Here’s Kleinman’s switcheroo:

Sure, we’re calling this “books that changed the way I think” but really it’s just meant to be your favorite books.

No it’s not! Favorite books and books that shaped you/stuck with you certainly can be coincident, but not necessarily. One of the interesting things about the list was that making it forced you to distinguish between books you liked and books that have had an sustained and consequential effect on you. (The Long Goodbye, for instance, would make the former list but got struck from my latter.)

But Kleinman thinks you’re covering up your actual, trashy reading tastes with random selections from Le Canon:

There is nothing wrong with liking popular books. You shouldn’t be ashamed to have read Harry Potter a dozen times. [Ed: nobody is.] Reading is just like anything else: it can be fun and it can be challenging. There shouldn’t be a stigma against fun books. [Ed: there isn’t.] If you’re super picky, remember that fluffy books can be gateways into more serious literature, ya prude.

Per Kleinman, here’s the “real” list you faux-elitists would have written if you’d been telling the truth:

1. Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone
2. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets
3. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
4. The Phantom Tollbooth
5. The Hunger Games
6. Fifty Shades Of Grey
7. Gossip Girl
8. A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One
9. The Lord Of The Rings
10. Where The Sidewalk Ends

Leaving aside that FB published metrics of the lists (they were watching) that revealed that most people did disproportionately list the Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Where the Sidewalk Ends, this misses the entire point of the exercise, which, once again, was not to name the most recent titles you gorged on but works that have stayed with you. 50 Shades of Grey went through a trillion printings, but nobody’s rereading it — just ask the charities overburdened with unwanted copies. The Hunger Games sold like gangbusters, but will anybody still be reaching for it on the shelf in ten years?

The 10-novels lists was a perfect filter for fads; only the books that survived multiple apartment moves made the cut. That’s how One Hundred Years of Solitude ends up on the list and 50 Shades of Grey doesn’t: because you read One Hundred Years of Solitude in 10th grade, and still do.

Adjective Girl

by evanmcmurry

Probably time to put this one back on the shelf for a spell:


NaNoWriMo to the End of the Line

by evanmcmurry

This is the logical conclusion of NaNoWriMo: a book nobody will read but that makes all the participants feel good about themselves, featuring the most generic, faddish plot possible, and clocking in at three times the length of the prompt, because if the words don’t matter, why not have 80 million of them?

All Your Questions About this New ‘Wearable Book,’ Answered

by evanmcmurry

Ever wanted to experience the emotions of your favorite book character?”

Yes. I do it all the time. Through prose, the technique of fiction.

Now you can

I already do.

thanks a “wearable, augmented book” by researchers from the MIT’s media lab. Called ‘Sensory Fiction’

It’s called prose.

it’s a book that readers literally wear. Equipped with sensors and actuators, it produces “physical sensations to mimic the characters’ emotions” as the plot unfolds.

We already have that. It’s called prose.

For example, if the protagonist is feeling upset or depress [sic], the book cover lights up, creating ambient lighting to reflect the mood. Feeling afraid? The wearable vest will tighten around the reader’s chest. For excitement, vibration patterns that “influence” the heart rate will make it beat quicker.


Is this the future of book reading?


Today in People With Book Deals Who Aren’t You

by evanmcmurry

Sylvia Day, who’s written 20 novels in her (10 year) career but only achieved sales success after her last title got a contact high from Fifty Shades of Gray, just inked an eight-figure contract for her next series. (Everything is a series now.) The following paragraph is the novelist version of a fancy sports car pulling up to a members-only club:

“We sat down for drinks, and she said, ‘Let me just put it on the table: I want to publish you,’” said Ms. Day, who lives in Las Vegas but keeps a pied-à-terre on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Rough life. The Times article, which all but states that her check should be written to E.L. James (whose checks should be written to Stephanie Meyer), goes on to remind god and everybody that the whole 50 Shades thing took a U-turn to the dump a while ago: charities are literally overflowing with unwanted copies, while chop shops have been churning out knock-offs for over a year now at a minute fraction of Day’s paycheck.

Hey, Sylvia Day could be our generation’s Elizabeth Bowen for all I know. But the $10 million-plus is explicitly responding to the trend, not her writing. That seems like an extraordinary amount of money to plunk down in the hope that lightning strikes the same tree twice, especially given the number of other trees it could have bought.

More people with book deals who aren’t you.

The New ‘Romantic’ Adaptation of 1984 Isn’t Even Based on the Book

by evanmcmurry

There are a million reasons to pre-hate the upcoming “romantic” adaptation of 1984 starring Kristen Stewart, but let’s start with this one:

Equals is an adaptation of the 1956 film 1984, which itself was based on George Orwell’s classic novel about rebellion in a futuristic society.

File this away with Amazon’s aggressively ironic deletion of 1984 from Kindles over a copyright violation. It’s a race to see who can best embody the novel’s memory hole in real time.

No, USA Today, The Great Gatsby Was Not the Best Book of 2013

by evanmcmurry

Can USA Today seriously not find a book published in 2013 that was worthy of highlighting? It’s not like there aren’t lists, if it wants to skip the hard work.

But despite itself, the paper’s post illustrates an interesting point about bestsellers and longevity. I remember talking to a bookbuyer once who said that classics consistently outsell even the Clancys and Grishams of the book world. On any given day, a new Stephen King or David Balducci title might sell astronomically more than Middlemarch, but average it out over the year or the lifetime of a book, and it pays much more to stock George Eliot.

That appears to be what USAT is describing without realizing it:

E.L. James and her titillating Fifty Shades of Grey bondage trilogy is so 2012.

In 2013, it was another love story — one that’s 88 years old — that redefined sexy reading.

At least in the MFA/budding writer world, we tend to view sales in terms of individual careers; year-end bestseller lists view sales as a race among an elite slice of competitive books; nail-biting articles on the health of the book industry tend to view sales as a giant monolith.

Lost in all this is different types of books perform differently over time. Fifty Shades sustained the book industry for a while, but the sheer tonnage of unwanted copies is actually causing problems for charities. Great Gatsby, which was in danger of going out of print when Fitzgerald died, is now a perennial bestseller. It pays to write a book that lasts, even if it doesn’t always pay the author.

That’s no reason to name a title published almost 100 years ago the best book of 2013. In fact, it’s all the more reason to find The Great Gatsby of 2013 among the hundreds of excellent novels published this year to the same modest sales that befell Gatsby’s initial run. Once again, it’s not like there aren’t lists of these things.