Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Terry Pratchett - Hogfather extract (Pt. II)

"In the glittering, clattering, chattering atmosphere a head waiter was having a difficult time. There were a lot of people in, and the staff should have been fully stretched, putting bicarbonate of soda into the white wine to make very expensive bubbles and cutting the vegetables very small in order to make them cost more.

Instead they were standing in a dejected group in the kitchen.

‘Where did it all go?’ screamed the manager. ‘Someone’s been through the cellar, too!’

‘William said he felt a cold wind,’ said the waiter. He’d been backed up against a hot plate, and now knew why it was called a hot plate in a way he hadn’t fully comprehended before.

‘I’ll give him a cold wind! Haven’t we got anything?’

‘There’s odds and ends…’

‘You don’t mean odds and ends, you mean des curieux et des bouts,’ corrected the manager.

‘Yeah, right, yeah. And, er, and, er…’

‘There’s nothing else?’

‘Er… old boots.’


‘Boots. Lots of ’em,’ said the waiter. He felt he was beginning to singe.

‘How come we’ve got… vintage footwear?’

‘Dunno. They just turned up. The oven’s full of old boots. So’s the pantry.’

‘There’s a hundred people booked in! All the shops’ll be shut! Where’s Chef?’

‘William’s trying to get him to come out of the privy, sir. He’s locked himself in and is having one of his Moments.’

Something’s cooking. What’s it that I can smell?’

‘Me, sir.’

‘Old boots…’ muttered the manager. ‘Old boots… old boots … leather, are they? Not clogs or rubber or anything?’

‘Looks like… just boots. And lots of mud, sir.’

The manager took off his jacket. ‘All right. Got some cream, have we? Onions? Garlic? Butter? Some old beef bones? A bit of pastry?’

‘Er, yes…’

The manager rubbed his hands together. ‘Right,’ he said, taking an apron off a hook. ‘You there, get some water boiling! Lots of water! And find a really large hammer! And you, chop some onions! The rest of you, start sorting out the boots. I want the tongues out and the soles off. We’ll do them… let’s see… Mousse de la Boue dans une Panier de la Pâte de Chaussures…’

‘Where’re we going to get that from, sir?’

‘Mud mousse in a basket of shoe pastry. Get the idea? It’s not our fault if even Quirmians don’t understand restaurant Quirmian. It’s not like lying, after all.’

‘Well, it’s a bit like-” the waiter began. He’d been cursed with honesty at an early stage.

‘Then there’s Brodequin rôti Façon Ombres…’ The manager sighed at the head waiter’s panicky expression. ‘Soldier’s boot done in the Shades fashion,’ he translated.

‘Er… Shades fashion?’

‘In mud. But if we can cook the tongues separately we can put on Languette braisée, too.’

‘There’s some ladies’ shoes, sir,’ said an under-chef.

‘Right. Add to the menu… Let’s see now… Sole d’une Bonne Femme… and… yes… Servis dans un Coulis de Terre en l’Eau. That’s mud, to you.’

‘What about the laces, sir?’ said another under-chef.

‘Good thinking. Dig out that recipe for Spaghetti Carbonara.’

‘Sir?’ said the head waiter.

‘I started off as a chef,’ said the manager, picking up a knife. ‘How do you think I was able to afford this place? I know how it’s done. Get the look and the sauce right and you’re three-quarters there.’

‘But it’s all going to be old boots!’ said the waiter.

‘Prime aged beef,’ the manager corrected him. ‘It’ll tenderize in no time.’

‘Anyway… anyway… we haven’t any soup-’

‘Mud. And lots of onions.’

‘There’s the puddings-’

‘Mud. Let’s see if we can get it to caramelize, you never know.’

‘I can’t even find the coffee… Still, they probably won’t last until the coffee…’

‘Mud. Café de Terre,’ said the manager firmly. ‘Genuine ground coffee.’

‘Oh, they’ll spot that, sir!’

‘They haven’t up till now,’ said the manager darkly.

‘We’ll never get away with it, sir. Never.’

'I’m not going to,’ said the head waiter firmly.

‘Look, I’ll buy you a better pair after Hogswatch-’

‘There’s two more Shoe Pastry, one for Purée de Terre and three more Tarte à la Boue,’ said a waiter, hurrying in.

‘Mud pies!’ moaned the waiter. ‘I can’t believe we’re selling mud pies. And now you want my boots!’

‘With cream and sugar, mind you. A real taste of Ankh-Morpork. And we can get at least four helpings off those boots. Fair’s fair. We’re all in our socks-’

‘Table seven says the steaks were lovely but a bit tough,’ said a waiter, rushing past.

‘Right. Use a larger hammer next time and boil them for a bit longer.’ The manager turned back to the suffering head waiter. ‘Look, Bill,’ he said, taking him by the shoulder. ‘This isn’t food. No one expects it to be food. If people wanted food they’d stay at home, isn’t that so? They come here for the ambience. For the experience. This isn’t cookery, Bill. This is cuisine. See? And they’re coming back for more.’

‘Yeah, but old boots…’

‘Dwarfs eat rats,’ said the manager. ‘And trolls eat rocks. There’s folks in Howandaland that eat insects and folks on the Counterweight Continent eat soup made out of bird spit. At least the boots have been on a cow.’

‘And mud?’ said the head waiter, gloomily.

‘Isn’t there an old proverb that says a man must eat a bushel of dirt before he dies?’

‘Yes, but not all at once.’

‘Bill?’ said the manager, kindly, picking up a spatula.

‘Yes, boss?’

‘Get those damn boots off right now, will you?’ "

Monday, December 24, 2007

Terry Pratchett - Hogfather extract (Pt. 1)

Sky One, 8.00-10 PM, 24-25th December

"The beggars stopped singing, except for Arnold Sideways, who tended to live in his own small world.

‘- nobody knows how good we can live, on boots three times a day…’

Then the change in the air penetrated even his consciousness.

Snow thumped off the trees as a contrary wind brushed them. There was a whirl of flakes and it was just possible, since the beggars did not always have their mental compasses pointing due Real, that they heard a brief snatch of conversation.

‘It just ain’t that simple, master, that’s all I’m saying-’


‘No, master, it’s just a lot more expensive. You can’t just go around-’

Things rained on the snow.

The beggars looked at them. Arnold Sideways carefully picked up a sugar pig and bit its nose off. Foul Ole Ron peered suspiciously into a cracker that had bounced off his hat, and then shook it against his ear.

The Duck Man opened a bag of sweets.

‘Ah, humbugs?’ he said.

Coffin Henry unlooped a string of sausages from around his neck.

‘Buggrit?’ said Foul Ole Ron.

‘It’s a cracker,’ said the dog, scratching its ear. ‘You pull it.’

Ron waved the cracker aimlessly by one end.

‘Oh, give it here,’ said the dog, and gripped the other end in its teeth.

‘My word,’ said the Duck Man, fishing in a snowdrift. ‘Here’s a whole roast pig! And a big dish of roast potatoes, miraculously uncracked! And… look… isn’t this caviar in the jar? Asparagus! Potted shrimp! My goodness! What were we going to have for Hogswatch dinner, Arnold?’

‘Old boots,’ said Arnold. He opened a fallen box of cigars and licked them.

‘Just old boots?’

‘Oh, no. Stuffed with mud, and with roast mud. ‘s good mud, too. I bin saving it up.’

‘Now we can have a merry feast of goose!’

‘All right. Can we stuff it with old boots?’

There was a pop from the direction of the cracker. They heard Foul Ole Ron’s thinking brain dog growl.

‘No, no, no, you put the hat on your head and you read the hum’rous mottar.'

‘Millenium hand and shrimp?’ said Ron, passing the scrap of paper to the Duck Man. The Duck Man was regarded as the intellectual of the group.

He peered at the motto.

‘Ah, yes, let’s see now… It says “Help Help Help Ive Fallen in the Crakker Machine I Cant Keep Runin on this Roller Please Get me Ou-”.’ He turned the paper over a few times. ‘That appears to be it, except for the stains.’

‘Always the same ole mottars,’ said the dog. ‘Someone slap Ron on the back, will you? If he laughs any more he’ll- oh, he has. Oh, well, nothing new about that.’

The beggars spent a few more minutes picking up hams, jars and bottles that had settled on the snow. They packed them around Arnold on his trolley and set off down the street.

‘How come we got all this?’

‘ ’s Hogswatch, right?’

‘Yeah, but who hung up a stocking?’

‘I don’t think we’ve got any, have we?’

‘I hung up an old boot.’

‘Does that count?’

‘Dunno. Ron ate it.’

High over the city Albert turned to Death, who seemed to be trying to avoid his gaze.

‘You didn’t get that stuff out of the sack! Not cigars and peaches in brandy and grub with fancy foreign names!’


Albert gave him a suspicious look.

‘But you put in the sack in the first place, didn’t you?’


‘You did, didn’t you?’


‘You put all those things in the sack.’

‘You got them from somewhere and put them in the sack.’


‘You did put them in the sack, didn’t you?’


‘You put them in the sack.’


‘I knew you put them in the sack. Where did you get them?’


‘Whole roast pig does not, in my experience, just lie around.’


‘Couple of chimneys ago we were over that big posh restaurant…’


‘And it seemed like you were down there a bit longer than usual, if you don’t mind me saying so.’


‘How exactly were they just inverted comma lying around inverted comma?’


‘In a kitchen?’


Alber pointed a trembling finger.

‘You nicked someone’s Hogswatch dinner, master!’


‘Yeah, well, that was a bit different,’ said Albert, lowering his voice. ‘But, I mean, the hogfather doesn’t drop down the chimney and pinch people’s grub!’


‘Well, yes, but-’


‘No, it won’t!’


‘Yeah, but you might at least have thought about the people whose grub you pinched.’


‘We’re heading down, master.’


Sunday, December 9, 2007

Alan W. Watts - The Way of Zen

Zen Buddhism

"has directness, verve and humour, and a sense of both beauty and nonsense at once exasperating and delightful. But above all it has a way of being able to turn one’s mind inside out, and dissolving what seemed to be the most oppressive human problems into questions like ‘Why is a mouse when it spins’."

(Preface, p. 10)

This wonderful old book is another of my finds in the Secret Book and Record Store here in Dublin (for a mention of a few others, see here). Well, when I say old I mean 1957. That's not exactly from-back-before-the-automobile antiquity, but it's a nice aged Penguin paperpack - Pelican, actually, since it's non-fiction.

Now, this blog is mostly about fiction, specifically novels; however, the last post was about a combination of a recent film and an illustrated Zen poem, so I do like to mix it up a bit. This particular post is not only linked to the theme of that piece, but also to a general thread which has been running through the blog as a whole, right through the write-ups of Kerouac and Pirsig; there is a whole vein of American sub-culture, or counter-culture, which takes from Zen as its inspiration and influence.(For more Zen, see this post on Hardcore for Nerds)

This is, most of all, a very useful text. What The Way of Zen does as a book is, chiefly, provide a "'account of an esoteric doctrine', as the blurb describes. A quote from the New Statesman calls it

"Certainly the most explicit and orderly of it [Zen] that has yet appeared in English."

At the top of the blurb, in italics, is the prophetic (or rather anti-prophetic) quote

Those who know do not speak;

Those who speak do not know

Watts makes a great deal out of the non-verbal, not-literary nature of Zen: it is not something - at least not in itself something - to be learned out of a book. The traditional Zen way of indicating this is, roughly, to say that the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself - as illustrated in this Yoshitoshi print:

"The night clouds dissolve

Hotei pointing at the moon

holds no opinion"

('Moon of Enlightenment', from Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Views of the Moon, via monkeybuddha.blogspot.com)

Watts does a good job of finding the balance between accuracy and authenticity, on the one hand, and on the other, presenting Zen in an attractive, accessible manner. The style of the book is somewhat academic, and slightly dated by this stage, but it's still an easy read. It is split into two sections, 'Background and History', and 'Principles and Practices'. The first traces the evolution of Zen thought through the history and culture of Buddhist and pre-Buddhist thought. The second deals with both the central philosophical ideas of Zen and the traditional images we have of its practices - particularly za-zen, or sitting meditation, and koans, or metaphysical riddles, which separate the two major schools of Zen itself. There is a rich discussion on these issues in the book, and some of the more incidental sections on Zen in the Arts (the tea ceremony, formal gardens) are fascinating. It's a very sympathetic text, but also quite scholarly; it travels an interesting path between objectivity and subjectivity, some of which is explained in the extract below.

The Way of Zen is more than a worthwhile, comprehensive introduction to Zen Buddhism: it is to a degree a cultural text of itself, a book 'of its time'. Watts, the author, is mentioned by pseudonym in at least one Kerouac novel. The 1950s was a boom period for Buddhism in the US, particularly in California and San Francisco city. What exactly Watts made of Kerouac's idiosyncratic take on Buddhism would be interesting to find out, because whatever about hedonism, Zen is all about idiosyncracy - at least when it's not about strict discipline, that is, but I digress - and thus is more than just a spiritual tradition, but an artistic and cultural medium. As Watt mentions below, there is a 'parallelism' between advanced Western science and the Eastern metaphysical tradition; a subject later much covered by Fritjof Capra's best-selling The Tao of Physics.

While, as the blurb says, "it is unfortunately still easier to say what Zen Buddhism is not that what it is", there is a lot to be said for what Zen can be linked to outside of itself. So this book is best thought not of as a spiritual guide, but as a work of discovery for those who want to know about the culture, philosophy and life of Zen. I may return to this book and discuss some of the substantive aspects of it, but for now I'll leave you with an extract. This is exactly the first couple of pages from the author's preface:

"During the past twenty years there has been an extraordinary growth of interest in Zen Buddhism. Since the Second World War this interest has increased so much that it seems to be becoming a considerable force in the intellectual and artistic world of the West. It is connected, no doubt, with the prevalent enthusiasm for Japanese culture which is one of the constructive results of the late war, but which may amount to no more than a passing fashion. The deeper reason for this interest is that the viewpoint of Zen lies so close to the ‘growing edge’ of Western thought.

The more alarming and destructive aspects of Western civilization should not blind us to the fact that at this very time it is also in one of its most creative periods. Ideas and insights of the greatest fascination are appearing in some of the newer fields of Western science – in psychology and psychotherapy, in logic and the philosophy of science, in semantics and communications theory. Some of these developments might be due to suggestive influences from Asian philosophy, but on the whole I am inclined to feel that there is more of a parallelism than a direct influence. We are, however, becoming aware of the parallelism, and it promises an exchange of views which should be extremely stimulating.

Western thought has changed so rapidly in this century that we are in a state of considerable confusion. Not only are there serious difficulties of communication between the intellectual and the general public, but the course of our thinking and of our very history has seriously undermined the common-sense assumptions which lie at the roots of our social conventions and institutions. Familiar concepts of space, time, and motion, of nature and natural law, of history and social change, and of human personality itself have dissolved, and we find ourselves adrift without landmarks in a universe which more and more resembles the Buddhist principle of the ‘Great Void’. The various wisdoms of the West, religious, philosophical, and scientific, do not offer much guidance to the art of living in such a universe, and we find the prospects of making our way in so trackless an ocean of relativity rather frightening. For we are used to absolutes, to firm principles and laws to which we can cling for spiritual and psychological security.

This is why, I think, there is so much interest in a culturally productive way of life which, for some fifteen hundred years, has felt thoroughly at home in ‘the Void’, and which not only feels no terror for it but rather a positive delight. To use its own words, the situation of Zen has always been -

Above, not a tile to cover the head;

Below, not an inch of ground for the foot.

Such language should not actually be so unfamiliar to us, were we truly prepared to accept the meaning of ‘the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head’.

I am not in favour of importing Zen from the Far East, because it has become deeply involved with cultural institutions which are quite foreign to us. But there is no doubt that there are things which we can learn, or unlearn, from it and apply in or own way. It has the special merit of a mode of expressing itself which is as intelligible – or perhaps as baffling – to the intellectual as to the illiterate, offering possibilities of communication which we have not explored. It has directness, verve and humour, and a sense of both beauty and nonsense at once exasperating and delightful. But above all it has a way of being able to turn one’s mind inside out, and dissolving what seemed to be the most oppressive human problems into questions like ‘Why is a mouse when it spins’. At its heart there is a strong but completely unsentimental compassion for human beings suffering and perishing from their very attempts to save themselves."

(Preface, p. 9-10)

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Into the Wild/10 Bulls


Last weekend I went to see this film, Sean Penn's Into the Wild, and I think it might be a masterpiece. Or at least, there are reasons for saying that it's really, really good. You can read a very good review of it by some random Aussie blogger here at typingisnotactivism.wordpress.com, and from which I've pulled a couple of particulary good quotes.

The basic plot is (based on a true story) that Christian McCandless, straight-A college student, abandons his middle-class lifestyle in the early 1990s to journey across America - "rather than the road so obvious, he embarks on a road rarely so sincerely travelled – donating his entire college fund to OxFam, destroying all his i.d., and disappearing into the still wild frontiers that live in the midst of, and beyond, American civilization." It seems like the film could be rather preachy or sentimental, but thankfully it doesn't take itself too seriously. There are plenty of gentle laughs in the story of the reinvention of Emile Hirsch as 'Alexander Supertramp' - it's not a comedy though, despite the appearance of Vince Vaughn in a small but key role - as well as a lot of real pathos and despair in his eventual journey to the Alaskan wilderness.

Into the Wild is a long feature - I reckon about two and half hours - but I never really felt boredom encroaching. The film is a study of character ambiguity much more than it is a simple story of self-discovery; the people McCandless meets, befriends and proselytizes to, and the places he travels as the determined, eager Supertramp sketch a multitude of American society and culture. Not to mention landscape, of which the towering Alaskan peaks are only the most dramatic. Accompanying this lush visual and literary experience is the soundtrack by Eddie Vedder. I'm on a big Lungfish (and Pupils, the same band minus the rhythm section) kick at the moment, and while it might be a bit of a stretch to connect their various bands, there is something of the same spacious, weighty alternative-grunge, or folk atmosphere about it. There's definitely something very liberating and American about big/loud guitars, and not just (necessarily) in the Springsteen sense.

"The soundtrack... plays no small part in helping this film work its seemingly easygoing magic. Hard Sun has to be the song of the year but more importantly the musical feel is organic, subtle, and happy to be taken or left. There is no sonic cheapening of the moment with obvious emotional or responsive cues. The story is so beautifully told that Vedder only has to add to what is already a great accomplishment, rather than accomplish what hasn’t been done. Similarly the cinematography is subtly stunning but never overbearing. While the camera captures and conveys zen-like moments of motion and stillness, its ultimate achievement is delivering an almost objective truth that allows the viewer to respond in their own personal way."

Why I am writing about this on Steady Diet of Books is for a variety of reasons. Like I say, this is a literary film. Not just in its scope, but in part quite specifically so; McCandless is an avid reader of Russian literature (Tolstoy, Gogol) as well as American authors such as, unsurpisingly Jack London. What is a bit of a surprise is the lack of mention of Kerouac; more of surprise to me, of course, as anyone who has been following this blog might have noticed, I'm a big fan. Into the Wild sounded on at least the one level like a great Kerouackian adventure, and that was how I would have and did sell the film.

McCandless's hyperliterary tendencies are really quite central to the psychological and philosophical lines of the story; as the achingly real modern-day idealist who uses the timeless, to him, emotions of the nineteenth century authors to redefine his world. As his sister, whose character acts as the outside, objective narrative of the film, remarks, he had a quote for every occasion. His ability to intone chunks of literature with intense fervour is something I envy somewhat, my own memory not extending to verbatim absorption of even the greatest works - those around me may instead be quite thankful of that. And while if I was to trek out of organised society, it would be based at least in part on The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, the completely different references of this film only reaffirm the variety and expanse of Western or near-Western literature.

In any case, McCandless's journey completed lacked the on-again-off-again hedonism of Kerouac's, and its sincerity was social and physical as well as spiritual. Which brings me, rather lengthily, to the second reason why I'm posting about this film. For better or worse, environmentalism is about the only ideology to which I really subscribe anymore. Part of it is about being politically and socially conscious, but part of it is that truly transfiguring artistic view of the world which I first found in Kerouac. Pirsig, too, rekindled in his physical and philosophical American journeys that appreciation for worldly nature which is, probably, latent in our childhood sense of wonder. In music, as well; I got a little sidetracked already into the earthy, folksy and Taoistic guitar sounds of Lungfish - but on my other blog I've already posted some more lyrically evident pieces on environmentalism.

Finally, the last thing I'll say about Into the Wild is to briefly mention the character's anti-materialist stance. By some reviewers this has been portrayed as selfish and arrogant; while by others as noble, pure ideal. The truth is that it's somewhere in between; hence the film being a study in ambiguity. Actually, it's like an update of Rebel Without a Cause to the modern versions of idealism and rebellion.

In political science today, and I guess this is kind of sociological as well, the attitude referred to is that of 'postmaterialism'. A nod to the constructed complexities of postmodernism, the postmaterialist generation care less about material social issues (jobs, welfare, health) than they do about less tangible subjects such as the environment or quality of life. (The implication being, of course, that they are provided already with substantial if not excessive material benefits, and regard issues concerning their distribution as inconsequential). Against this kind of idea, environmentalism is meant to look hypocritical, and we lose that authentic Kerouackian artistic stance which, at least implicitly, Into the Wild portrays.


While doing some reading for an essay, I came across this passage in a book called ‘Beauty, Health and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985’, by Samuel P. Hays. In my opinion at least it forms a really eloquent, if academic, defence of 'postmaterialism':

“All this seems rather complex and contrived; public interest in environmental affairs is far simpler. It stems from a desire to improve personal, family and community life. The desires are neither ephemeral or erratic; they are evident in many nations, first in the advanced industrial and consumer societies and then in more recent years in those of middle and even earlier stages of development. They express human wants and needs as surely as demands for better housing, more satisfying leisure and recreation… We customarily associate these with human ‘progress’, which normally is accepted as a fundamental concern unnecessary to explain away in other terms. An interest in the environmental quality of life is to be understood simply as an integral part of the drive inherent in persistent human aspirations and achievement.”


10 Bulls, a 12th-century illustrated Zen (Chan) Buddhist poem, symbolizing the different stages on the journey to enlightenment. From the Zen Flesh, Zen Bones anthology, with modern woodcuts by Tomikichiro Tokuriki:

1. The Search for the Bull

2. Discovering the Footprints

3. Perceiving the Bull

4. Catching the Bull

5. Taming the Bull

6. Riding the Bull Home

7. The Bull Transcended

8. Both Bull and Self Transcended

9. Reaching the Source

10. In the World

"In the pastures of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull.

Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains,

My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull.

I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.

Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints!

Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints.

Deep in remote mountains they are found.

These traces no more can be hidden than one’s nose, looking heavenward.

I hear the song of the nightingale.

The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore,

Here no bull can hide!

What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?

I seize him with a terrific struggle.

His great will and power are inexhaustible.

He charges to the high platueau far above the cloud-mists,

Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

The whip and rope are necessary,

Else he might stray off down some dusty road.

Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.

Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.

The voice of my flute intones through the evening.

Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm.

Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Astride the bull, I reach home.

I am serene. The bull too can rest.

The dawn has come. In blissful repose,

Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.

Whip, rope, person and bull – all merge in No-thing,

This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.

How may a snowflake exists in a raging fire?

Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.

Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!

Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with that without -

The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world.

My clothes are ragged and dust-laden and I am ever blissful.

I use no magic to extend my life;

Now, before me, the trees become alive."

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Don DeLillo - Underworld

Another really mammoth novel, and again this time from America. Underworld deserves comparison to Ulysses, a fact I mentioned here. If not for any real Joycean stylings, then for a similar ambition that DeLillo brings to literature.

As you might expect, critics love this book, because they can make so many lyrical, profoundly aphoristic statements about its goals and intents. It’s the kind of book where the blurb quotes come in paragraphs rather than sentences. The most understated of them merely remarks that “Don DeLillo’s latest novel really is one of the finest of the century”. They tend to play the man not the ball, in near-fawning recognition of DeLillo’s status as a major literary writer – “In Underworld we have a mature and hugely accomplished novelist firing on all cylinders, at the sophisticated height of his multifarious powers”.

Yet as for the novel itself, its significance is in something other than its dimensions of length and weight; it is the experience and the affect of the work to the reader. Hence Underworld “demands our full attention. The reward is its great depth, shimmering prose and the feeling that when we put it down that we’re a little wiser than we were”. “Reading the book is a charged and thrilling aesthetic experience and one remembers gratefully that this is what the novel can do, and indeed does, better than any other art form – it gets the human condition”.

Most pointed of all, is the description of the New York Times – perhaps since the city is the subject of the book - “This bravura master of cerebral pyrotechnics also knows how to seize and rattle our emotions… In this remarkable novel, [DeLillo] has taken the effluvia of modern society, all the detritus of our daily and political lives, and turned it into a dazzling, phosphorescent work of art”.

The final blurb I wish to include is one of the two on the front cover, and simply calls Underworld

“…an aria and a wolf whistle of our half-century

It contains multitudes.”

(Michael Ondaatje)

From one acclaimed author to another; Don DeLillo is the major writer of that ‘half-century’. That is a completely gratuitous statement – at the moment, the papers are full of obituaries for Norman Mailer, who I really should read – but I’ll fight my corner for DeLillo's importance as a really important stylistic American writer.

I say stylistic because, although DeLillo writes beautifully plotted books and tackles some pretty weighty subjects (the two that come to mind are Libra, which I’m just about to mention, about Oswald’s assassination of JFK, and Falling Man, about the Twin Towers disaster) it is the style of his writing which really gets me. The depth and fineness of his characterisation is also an important feature; but this, too, is mostly stylistic. As evidence, here is an extract from the first couple of pages of the very first chapter of Libra:

" ‘In The Bronx’

This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they’d been practicing for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they really were. His body fluttered in the fastest stretches. They went so fast sometimes he thought they were on the edge of no-control. The noise was pitched to a level of pain he absorbed as a personal test. Another crazy-ass curve. There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.

Workmen carried lanterns along adjacent tracks. He kept a watch for sewer rats. A tenth of a second was all it took to see a thing complete. Then the express stations, the creaky brakes, people bunched like refugees. They came wagging through the doors, banged against the rubber edges, inched their way in, were quickly pinned, looking out past the nearest heads into that practiced oblivion.

It had nothing to do with him. He was riding just to ride.

One forty-ninth, the Puerto Ricans. One twenty-fifth, the Negroes. At Forty-second Street, after a curve that held a scream right out to the edge, came the heaviest push of all, briefcases, shopping bags, school bags, blind people, pickpockets, drunks. It did not seem odd to him that they subway held more compelling things than the famous city above. There was nothing important out there, in the broad afternoon, that he could not find in purer form in these tunnels beneath the streets."

So what the DeLillo style is all about is getting a feel for a place, a scene, a moment in time. It’s psychological, psychogeographical even; a description of New York through real people who are also historical characters (as befits DeLillo's penchant for fictionalising celebrity, the opening preface has a three-way conversation between Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and J. Edgar Hoover at a baseball game). In fact, Underworld doesn't have much of a plot; just fifty years of numerous interweaving narratives and enduring symbols of culture and atttitudes; one half baseball, one half atom bomb.

Altogether, Underworld is a succession of episodes, scenes which begin and end without any real dramatic action, only portraiture and compelling, sympathetic description. This extract is one of those scenes, of a subway graffiti artist Munoz/Moonman who actually reappears much later in the novel. In total the scene runs to just over eight pages, juxtaposed with the viewing of a lost Eisenstein film, ‘Unterwelt’, uptown in the Radio City Music Hall:

“The statue in the marbled niche had the thighs and claves of a man, a man’s bundled muscles in the forearms, but the figure in fact was biblical Eve, tight-breasted, with an apple in her hands and the sloping shoulders of a fullback.

And why not. The evening had the slightly scattered air of some cross-referenced event…”

The subplot is that the socialite artist, Klara Sax, is involved in trying to get the backstreet graffitist to do a gallery show. Ironically, elsewhere in the narrative (and about twenty years later) she is in charge of a project to paint, not subway trains, but hundreds of decommissioned, steel-finished war bombers – linking back to the 1950’s atomic era, and so on. Even within the piece here, there is a lot of repetition – a subtle touch of Joycean stream of consciousness and internal dialogue – which is quite noticeable if you read carefully. (Here, the ellipses are mine)

"The train was one of his, Moonman’s, he had a dozen pieces running through the system, top-to-bottom burners, and it just so happens he was aboard tonight, under the water mains and waste pipes, under the gas and steam and electric, between the storm sewers and telephone lines, and he moved from car to car with each stop and checked out the people who stepped inside, wearing their retractable subway faces, and the doors went ding dong before slamming shut.

Ismael Munoz, dark and somber, watching people come aboard. Sparsely stubbled Ismael reading lips and faces, hoping he might catch a bravo comment. Hey this guy is lighting up the line. This was his newest piece so here he was going uptown on the Washington Heights local, every car tagged with his own neon zoom, with highlights and overlapping letters and 3-D effect, the whole wildstyle thing of making your name and street number a kind of alphabet city where the colors lock and bleed and the letters connect and it’s all live jive, it jumps and shouts – even the drips are intentional, painted supersharp to express how the letters sweat, how they live and breathe and eat and sleep, they dance and play the sax.

This is not a window-down piece. This was a whole-train burner with windows painted over and each letter and number bigger than a man.

Moonman 157

Ismael was sixteen, not too old and not too young and he was determined to kill the shit of every subway artist in town.

Nobody could take him down.

Once a man stood on the platform and took a picture of one of Moonman’s top-to-bottoms, a foreigner by the look of him, and Ismael sidled to the open door so he could be in the picture too, unknown to the man. The man was photographing the piece and the writer both, completely unknown to himself, from someplace in Sweden he looked.

At Columbus Circle he changed to the Broadway train because he had business at the end of the line. He got on a train that was bombed inside and out by Skaty 8, a thirteen-year-old writer who frantically tagged police cars, hearses, garbage trucks, who took his Krylon satin colors into the tunnels and tagged up the walls and catwalks, he hit platforms, steps, turnstiles and benches, he’d tag your little sister if she was walking by. Not a style king, no way, but a legend among writers for the energy he put forth, getting his tag seen by major millions and then two weeks ago, and a genuine regret went through Ismael as he recalled being told, he slumped and sagged all over again and felt the deepest kind of soldierly sadness – Skaty 8 hit by a train while he’s walking on the tracks under downtown Brooklyn.

People moved along the car, they skated to a seat, they looked at display ads above the heads across the aisle, all without eye motion that you could detect with the most delicate device.

Ismael used to walk the tracks when he felt sorry for himself. Those were foregone times. He’d pop an emergency hatch in the sidewalk and climb down into a tunnel and just, like, go for a walk, be alone down there, keeping the third rail in sight and listening for the train and getting to know the people who lived in the cable rooms and up on the catwalks, and that’s where he saw a spray-painted scrawl, maybe five years ago, down under Eighth Avenue.Bird Lives. It made him wonder about graffiti, about who took the trouble and risk to walk down this tunnel and throw a piece across the wall, and how many years have gone by since then, and who is Bird, and why does he live?

And the guy who reached around saying excuse me please.

He rode up the edge of Manhattan headed for the Bronx. There was no art in bombing platforms and walls. You have to tag the trains. The trains come roaring down the rat alleys all alike and then you hit a train and it is yours, seen everywhere in the system, and you get inside people’s heads and vandalize their eyeballs.

The crew shook the cans and the ball went click.

He stood on the door edge of one train and leaned across to the train parked adjacent and tagged it from the windows up.

And he went down the slate stairway that crumbled to the pressure of his weight, his hand on the rusty pipe that was the banister, and he felt the mood of a tunnel on a given day. It might be a coke mood one day, Ismael did not do drugs, or a mood of speed that’s travelling through the tunnel, someone made a buy and shared it, or a mood of mental illness, which was often the case. And always a brown rat mood because they were there in pack rat numbers, an endless source of stories, the size of the rats, the attitude of unfearing, how they ate the bodies of those who died in the tunnels, how they were eaten in turn by the rat man who lived in level six under Grand Central, he killed and cooked and ate a rat a week - track rabbits, they were called.

In other words to muralize a whole train you need a full night and part of the next night and no shuffling bullshit talk.

And a mood of who you are in your head day by day, which he did not share with anyone at street level, and going to sleep in a cousin’s bed at night or in the supply cellar of some bodega where they knew Ismael Munoz and gave him a place that was adequate and hearing the doors go ding dong and seeing the man from Stockholm, Sweden who took pictures of his piece.

They had dozens of cans out and ready, all by prearrangement, and he called a color and they shook the can and the ball went click.

”Where’s my Perrier?” he said.

But you have to stand on a platform and see it coming or you can’t know the feeling a writer gets, how the number 5 train comes roaring down the rat alleys and slams out of the tunnel, going whop-pop onto the high tracks, and suddenly there it is, Moonman riding the sky in the heart of the Bronx, over the whole burnt and rusted country, and this is the art of the backstreets talking, all the way from Bird, and you can’t not see us anymore, you can’t not know who we are, we got total notoriety now, Momzo Tops and Rimester and me, we’re getting fame, we ain’t ashame, and the train go rattling over the garbagy streets and past the dead-eye windows of all those empty tenements that have people living there even if you don’t see them, but you have to see our tags and cartoon figures and bright and rhyming poems, this is the art that can’t stand still, it climbs across your eyeballs night and day, the flickery jumping art of the slums and dumpsters, flashing those colors in your face – like I’m your movie, motherfucker."

(Part 4, Cocksucker Blues – Summer 1974, Ch. 3)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Phaedrus vs. Omar Khayyám (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, revisited)

(Now with Pt.III)

I’m a great believer in intertextuality… I love making comparisons; or rather, connections. As the quote goes, “Only connect”.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance although physically not that large a book, nevertheless contains so much that it was difficult to treat it anyway comprehensively in the one post. A second problem was that it’s a hard book to quote from: although it’s immensely readable and definitely at times quite lyrical, it doesn’t lend itself to outstanding extracts, which are after all only literary soundbites. That is not a comment on the quality of the writing, which is superb, but more on the method of the book, which is to layer thought upon thought (both intellectually and emotionally) until a beautiful structure of ideas is built up.

That is why I feel the need to add a little more around the bare bones of the original post. I’ve already put up some pictures of a certain other motorcycle road trip on my other (music) blog: Bouncing Souls vs. Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Here, obviously, I’m going to look at books: specifically, books that are mentioned in ZMM.


"Books. I don’t know any other cyclist who takes books with him. They take up a lot of space, but I have three of them here anyway, with some loose sheets of paper in them for writing. These are:

a. The shop manual for this cycle.

b. A general troubleshooting guide containing all the technical information I can never keep in my head. This is Chilton’s Motorcycle Troubshooting Guide written by Ocee Rich and sold by Sears, Roebuck.

c. A copy of Thoreau’s Walden which Chris has never heard and which can be read a hundred times without exhaustion. I try always to pick a book far over his head and read it as a basis for questions and answers, rather than without interruption. I read a sentence or two, wait for him to come up with his usual barrage of questions, answer them, then read another sentence or two. Classics read well this way. Sometimes we have spent a whole evening reading and talking and discovered we have only covered two or three pages. It’s a form of reading done a century ago… when Chautauquas were popular. Unless you’ve tried it you can’t imagine how pleasant it is to do it this way."


"The sunlight just touches the top of the bluff high above the draw we’re in. A wisp of fog has appeared above the creek. That means it’ll warm up.

I get out of the sleeping bag, put shoes on, pack everything I can without waking Chris, and then go over to the picnic table and give him a shake to wake him up.

He doesn’t respond. I look around and see that there are no jobs left to do but wake him up, and hesitate, but feeling manic and jumpy from the brisk morning air holler, “WAKE!” and he sits up suddenly, eyes wide open.

I do my best to follow this with the opening Quatrain of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It looks like some desert cliff in Persia above us. But Chris doesn’t know what the hell I’m talking about. He looks up at the top of the bluff and then just sits there squinting at me. You have to be in a certain mood to accept bad recitations of poetry. Particularly that one.

Soon we’re on the road again, which twists and turns. We stem down into an enormous canyon with high white bluffs on either side. The wind freezes. The road comes into some sunlight which seems to warm me right through the jacket and sweater, but soon we ride into the shade of the canyon wall again where again the wind freezes. This dry desert air doesn’t hold heat. My lips, with the wind blowing into them, feel dry and cracked.

Farther on we cross a dam and leave the canyon into some high semidesert country. This is Oregon now. The road winds through a landscape that reminds me of northern Rajasthan, in India, where it’s not quite desert, much piñon, junipers and grass, but not agricultural either, except where a draw or valley provides a little extra water.

Those crazy Rubáiyat Quatrain keep rumbling through my head.

…something, something along some Strip of Herbage strown,

That just divides the desert from the sown,

Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known,

And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne…

That conjures up a glimpse of the ruins of an ancient Mogul palace near the desert where out of the corner of his eye he saw a wild rosebush…

…And this first summer Month that brings the Rose

… How did that go? I don’t know. I don’t even like the poem. I’ve noticed since this trip has started and particularly since Bozeman that these fragments seem less and less a part of his memory and more and more a part of mine. I’m not sure what that means… I think… I just don’t know.

I think there’s a name for this kind of semidesert, but I can’t think of what it is. No one can be seen anywhere on the road but us.

Chris hollers that he has diarrhea again. We ride until I see a stream below and pull of the road and stop. His face is full of embarrassment again but I tell him we’re in no hurry and get out a change of underwear and roll of toilet paper and bar of soap and tell him to wash his hands thoroughly and carefully after he’s done.

I sit on an Omar Khayyám rock contemplating the semidesert and feel not bad.

…And this first Summer month that brings the Rose… oh… now it comes back…

Each Morn a thousand Roses bring, you say,

Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?

And this first Summer month that brings the Rose,

Shall take Jamshyd and Kaikobad away.

… And so on and so forth….

Let’s get off Omar and onto the Chautauqua. Omar’s solution is just to sit around and guzzle the wine and fell so bad that time is passing and the Chautauqua looks good to me by comparison. Particularly today’s Chautauqua, which is about gumption…"


Walden I bought about a year ago, and it is really rather good. In fact, it’s kind of similar to ZMM, in that it combines the practical story of Thoreau’s seclusion in the wood cabin of Walden Pond and his intellectual and political thoughts about American civilisation (Thoreau is famed as a committed 19th-century proponent of civil disobedience). So Walden is in effect another counterculture novel.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám I just picked up today. Blend mentioned below that he picked up his copy of ZMM for a dollar on the street. Unfortunately, we don’t have much of that going on in Dublin. We do have a little place called ‘The Secret Book and Record Store’, at the end of a corridor off a busy street - incidentally a few doors down from Tower Records, which we do still have here – where I found the copy of the Rubaiyat you see above, for €5.

Particularly at these current exchange rates, that’s a lot more than one dollar, but it’s very good value nonetheless. I found some other good stuff – Paul Auster’s City of Glass in graphic novel form drawn by Karasik and Mazzucchelli and with an introduction by Art Spiegelman (€7.95), Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country: A Memoir of Life in George W. Bush’s America (€7.95) and Bernard-Henri Levy’s War, Evil and the End of History (€4.95; some French philosopher dude combining his war journalism with his refléxions on politics and the ’68 student rising – it had a cool black cover and the price was right, wasn’t it?). When I was paying for all this I saw a Hamsun at the top of the several piles of second-hand books yet to be priced; asked how much it was; the cashier went to the back of the store to consult with the owner, typed away at his computer for a while; repeated the process; and then told me €40! Apparently it was a first edition. I’m not even sure if it was any good (one of his later works), so obviously I left it.

So that’s my story of cheap/second-hand book-buying in Dublin. The whole twenty-quid extravaganza was partly in celebration of the fact that this blog has been going for about three months this weekend. It’s time to take stock, so any suggestions, requests or ideas for improvement are more than welcome – just leave a comment!

In any case, I’ve got a great book coming up – Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which is currently vying with City of Glass as one of the coolest books about New York there is to read. Stick around…

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Robert M. Pirsig - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Now that Ulysses is out of the way, it’s time to start on another mammoth book. Zen and the Art of the Motorcycle Maintenance is a pretty well known 70’s counterculture novel, and by the author’s own admission, doesn’t have all that much to do with either Zen or motorcycles. What it does have to do with is, on the one hand, a personal quest for peace and serenity, and on the other, a metaphysical journey into the human understanding of art and technology. The subtitle is significant – decided on after much discussion between author and publisher, as “An Inquiry into Values”. What these values are, is fundamental to understanding Pirsig’s work; basic, metaphysical and firmly absent of conventional moralising. And it is the ‘inquiry’ which defines the peculiarly incisive character of the book.

ZMM takes the narrative form of a father-son motorcycle road trip, combined with a ‘Chautauqua’, which is the author’s term for philosophical and intellectual discussion. In this way – and this is what makes the book so thick – he weaves together a literary tale with an incisive philosophical one. The theme of motorcycle maintenance is a link between the two – as is the Zen attitude to life – and serves as a metaphor for a lot of his philosophical and metaphysical ideas. In addition to all this, the road trip turns – and without me giving anything away – into a major psychological drama.

Briefly, the philosophical element of ZMM is a reappraisal of western ‘subject-object’ metaphysics, which recognises a fundamental division between the self and the world around it, towards the author’s own ‘metaphysics of quality’. Quality is described as the interface between the subject and the object, the former concepts of which are seen as misguiding and redundant. A lot of this is taken from Zen and other Eastern philosophic traditions, with their rejection of dualities and the emphasis on the immersion into the effervescence of being. The motorcycle maintenance comes in here as a kind of Taoistic attention to the act of work – the melding of the machine and the mechanic, to crudely and rather falsely describe it.

This philosophic system only emerges gradually throughout the book, and on the way the author brings in different strands of his intellectual experiences, which are wide and very varied. There is a stress on being analytical – the action of which is brilliantly described as that of a surgeon wielding a knife, the analogy being the cutting and transferring of ideas rather than tissue – as he develops his system of relating to reality.

The counterculture element to the book is brought up quite frequently, as a reason for creating a new theory of metaphysics. Pirsig is dissatisfied with the industrialised, materialist society which he seeks to escape from on his journey. At the same time, this is past the high water mark of the 60's (I think that's a line from Hunter S. Thompson, actually) and he is critical of the idealism of the hippy movement. Here, too, the fundamentally questioning spirit of Zen emerges, alongside the deep humanism of the author. Although politics are only discussed tangentially, he has a deep concern for the people and the land he is travelling through. The appreciation of natural beauty, too, has a sense of ecology or environmentalism about it. Most basically, however, it is the everyday practicalities of his motorcycle trip through which Pirsig grounds the philosophical questing of the novel.

As ZMM continues, and the intellectual discussion becomes more and more sophisticated, the personal elements of the narrative take on a more disturbing tone. In many ways, the book is no longer the book you started reading. The text shifts between real events of the narrative, abstract discussions and an increasingly pressurising reminiscing of the author’s past. The novel takes on a almost Gothic quality towards the end, full of dark drama and fractured personalities, while the metaphysical-intellectual thought reaches its stratospheric conclusions. Not only are the philosophical elements truly intriguing and credible, but ZMM is a masterly dramatic literary novel.

Here's the start of the very first chapter...

"I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning. The wind, even at sixty miles an hour, is warm and humid. When it’s this hot and muggy at eight-thirty, I’m wondering what it’s going to be like in the afternoon.

In the wind are pungent odors from the marshes by the road. We are in an area of the Central Plains filled with thousands of duck hunting sloughs, heading northwest from Minneapolis towards the Dakotas. This highway is an old concrete two-laner that hasn’t had much traffic since a four-laner went in parallel to it several years ago. When we pass a marsh the air suddenly becomes cooler. Then, when we are past, it suddenly warms up again.

I’m happy to be riding back into this country. It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and has an appeal because of just that. Tensions disappear along old roads like this. We bump along the beat-up concrete between the cattails and stretches of meadow and then more cattails and marsh grass. Here and there is a stretch of open water and if you look closely you can see wild ducks at the edge of the cattails. And turtles… There’s a red-winged blackbird.

I whack Chris’s knee and point to it.

“What!” he hollers.


He says something I don’t hear. “What?” I holler back.

He grabs the back of my helmet and hollers up, “I’ve seen lots of those, Dad!”

“Oh!” I holler back. Then I nod. At age eleven you don’t get very impressed with red-winged blackbirds.

You have to get older for that. For me this is all mixed up with memories that he doesn’t have. Cold mornings long ago when the marsh grass had turned brown and cattails were waving in the northwest wind. The pungent smell then was from muck stirred up by hip boots while we were getting into position for the sun to come up and the duck season to open. Or winters when the sloughs were frozen over and dead and I could walk across the ice and snow between the dead cattails and see nothing but grey skies and dead things and cold. The blackbirds were gone then. But now in July they’re back and everything is at its alivest and every foot of these sloughs is humming and cricking and buzzing and chirping a whole community of millions of living things living out their lives in a kind of benign continuum.

You see that vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car-window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness."

Sunday, October 28, 2007

James Joyce, Ulysses (II)

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing-gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

- Introibo ad altare Dei.

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:

- Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful jesuit.

Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country and the awakening mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat, and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak…”

(Ch. 1 - Telemachus)



And so begins one of the most unfairly denigrated books of the twentieth century. Denigrated unfairly, in fact, for both obscenity and inaccessibility. Scholars of the future may well term this the ‘Joycean paradox’ – how a book was banned for its explicitness in the first half of the twentieth century, and how in the second half it was derided as meaningless nonsense. Hopefully, in the twenty-first century we should be able to come up with some kind of cohesive response.

To be kind to the unreconstructed bigots and the revisionists, who may or may not be all the same people, there is plenty that is difficult about this book. And furthermore, I’m not the kind of person to advocate any kind of Great Books - books that are not only must-reads, but must-likes. I just enjoy reading great books, and admit that it may be entirely possible to dislike Ulysses while retaining a full intellectual faculty.

So, to any remaining philistines who are reading this, I shall now endeavour to show you why Ulysses is a book well worth reading. (Rest assured, as well, that I often write with my tongue so far in my cheek that it pokes out the other side)



Ulysses is not really just a book, it’s a whole cultural experience. It is, after all, an epic description of a day in the life of Ireland’s capital city in the early years of the twentieth centuries, and with all the political, social and cultural baggage that comes with, transformed into an immense work of art. It’s not the greatest story ever told, but it is a good attempt at capturing everything about character and situation into the one book.

Even just as a book, it still works very well. I’ve never read Homer, so most of the whole Greek analogies are over my head, but Ulysses does have a certain structure to it. Originally, there were title chapters in the manuscript, corresponding to episodes of the Homeric poem – Sirens, Nausikaa, Telemachus etc – but at least in my Penguin edition, these aren’t included in the body of the text. I think that it is good to at least be aware of the extra level of meaning, but it is not really necessary to the appreciation of Ulysses as a modern novel. Sure, if you’re an English scholar, then maybe you should know…

The chapters do help structure the book, however, because what Joyce is all about here is switching between styles of writing – generally becoming increasingly impenetrable. The extract above reads pretty much as an ordinary novel, although there is hinted at that extra freedom of description, that lyrical touch which makes even comparatively normal Joyce (selections of Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist) so enjoyable to read. In the other extracts I have produced (here and here) the effect is ratcheted up to a much heavier degree. A lot of the writing in Ulysses is pretty detached from meaning and any kind of real communication with the reader.

There. I said it – euphemistically, of course – that Ulysses is a load of nonsense at times, and that no right-thinking individual who isn’t an idiot savant or a crazed poet should really worry about understanding Joyce’s alleged masterpiece.

That’s true – if only for, as Terry Pratchett would say, a given value of ‘truth’ – but I hardly think it should stop you from enjoying the book. Common sense would seem to give you two options with regarding to reading the unreadable: either you keep hold of the idea that there is a meaning in there, to be decoded with sufficient attention and knowledge; or you just ride on over the passage, absorbing the language and the sounds, and the seemingly incidental ideas. Of course, the real answer has to be a synthesis of the two: just keep on going, and see what you pick up – you might be surprised!


(Yes, that is Marilyn Monroe, and that is apparently Ulysses that she is reading. She said she liked the sounds of the book, but more importantly she read it the way one is meant to - not all at once, but randomly, from chapter to chapter)



As I say, Ulysses is a lot more than just a book. It’s a whole idea about approaching literature, about giving words meaning and power they might not have had already. It is an attempt to apply literature to as many facets of life as possible, to describe the whole sum of human experience, thought and communication and not just the rarified strand which makes up ordinary narrative.

In this sense, Ulysses is all about the legacy. For me, that legacy is chiefly the beat literature of Kerouac. Of course, Kerouac had plenty of other influences, and thankfully so, because otherwise he wouldn’t be half as interesting a writer. I wasn’t even consciously aware of the connection for a while, other than a few abstract references, and despite the fact that I began reading them within a few years of each other.

It was, though, when I broke with a pretty much continuous stretch of reading Kerouac’s novels and even some of his poetry, and picked up Ulysses again, that I realised that, in fact, I had been reading Joyce all along. Filtered through the Beat consciousness, the craziness of American popular culture and the haze of literary and psychochemical experimentation, it was all pretty much the same thing; the wholesale deconstruction and explosion of language. It’s all about, as well, the expression of thought and feeling in that wonderfully direct, expansive and lyrically beautiful fashion, although Kerouac comes across as a much more likeable and personable writer than Joyce.

Ulysses is built up so much as a classic of literature that it’s easy to forget sometimes what it’s meant to be; a document of communication, distorted for effect. It’s a statement, too, which is why it’s big and heavy. It’s a masterpiece, a virtuoso performance, which makes it so grand – but at heart, it’s simple really.

There must be hundreds of other difficult-to-read modernist authors who have come after Joyce, all of them owing a debt to the master and producing their own progressive, exciting pieces which join in the high miasma of modern literature. I haven’t had the chance to read many of them, but I’m sure they exist. Of course, it’s all post-modern now; Joyce is consigned to history, and the ideas have changed – but there will always be great books that attempt to describe life like Ulysses did.

Probably the best living American author, Don De Lillo, did something of the kind with his massive Underworld. It’s a globe-spanning, era-jumping description of New York in the second half of the twentieth century, just as Ulysses was a single-day, perambulatory account of Edwardian Dublin one warm summer’s day – both of them a view of life across classes, personalities, ideologies and histories. De Lillo’s prose is hardly to be called Joycean – in fact it’s qualitatively very different – but he does have some of the same kind of ambition that Joyce did.


Today, Ulysses perseveres. Better still, it pervades. The cultural experience which is a novel of some 700-odd pages and lot of made-up words, is clung to tightly by a certain few in my native city – not to mention its global, and significantly, American, following.

It pops up in the strangest of situations: once, in the course of an amicable conversation with a police sergeant – in fact, the exact equivalent and real-life successor of Flann O’Brien’s Sergeant Fottrell – the values of marine bathing were discussed, and he quoted with great mirth Joyce’s “snotgreen scrotumtightening sea”.

In Dublin, Bloomsday is a significant annual celebration, with the centennial in 2004 drawing huge crowds of Joyceans, and other cultural tourists. Amongst other events, there was a massive open-air breakfast of lambs’ kidneys, numerous Gorgonzola lunches, as well as public readings from the book – invariably including a reading by Ireland’s first openly homosexual senator – and throngs of enthusiasts dressed in Edwardian clothing.

There may be a streak of fandom in the celebration of Ulysses which makes me uncomfortable. But it’s probably because I don’t want to see the greatest novel ever written being regarded with any more suspicion than it already is. Ulysses is, I suppose, just another book: but it is one which very much pushes at the boundaries of that concept.