The Spectacle Blog

Has Steve Almond Ever Read Ulysses?

By on 1.20.13 | 11:51AM

You already know my question. I'm wondering because this morning I read Almond's essay "Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time’" (cute title), which apeared in last Sunday's New York Times magazine. Almond's not-very-clearly expressed thesis is that the art of narration, as exemplified by "Zola or Dickens or Tolstoy" (apparently he isn't sure in what order these writers were born), is dying.

Here, in four easy-to-follow steps à la analytic philosophy, is Almond's argument:

1) Narrators in realist fiction do certain things: e.g., "portray. . . how individual fates collide with history," "enlarge our moral imagination," "offer a sweeping depiction of the world that helps us clarify our role in it."

2) Narrators in the tradition of high modernism don't do any of these things.

3) Most films and television shows don't even have a narrator.

4) Therefore, President Obama cannot "tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism."

I'm with you if you think that there are some (actually a lot of) missing steps here. Three premises (the second of which is exceedingly dubious) and one conclusion that doesn't really follow from anything preceding it: not exactly air-tight.

Anyway, Almond's non sequitur isn't what really burned me. (Frankly I expect nothing else from the Times; I would be put out, in fact, if I encountered something not unlike cogent logic in its pages.) No, it was this banal assertion about James Joyce that really got the eyes glistening and the heart going pitpat: "Writers like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein turned their gaze inward, toward the intricacies of consciousness."

This is the sort of thing that middlebrows say about Joyce all the time, in every used book store cum café in Blue State America. "Last summer I finally made it through Ulysses. A fascinating work of fiction.* Stream-of-conciousness, you know." As if "stream-of-consciousness"--itself simply a natural (though more than occasionally tiresome) development of the tendency of earlier novelists to explore, as Almond himself puts it, "the interior lives of characters"--were all that Joyce was up to in his second published novel.

One of the book's most remarkable "episodes" (and, incidentally, Joyce's favorite), Ithaca, is actually the antithesis of stream-of-consciousness: a cold, detached catechism ("What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire?") that has nothing whatever to do with "consciousness." Virginia Woolf offers something similar in the "Time Passes" interlude from To the Lighthouse. The first few paragraphs of Bleak House also anticipate Joyce's extra-human hyper-naturalism.

So again I ask: has Steve Almond ever read Ulysses, or is he just opening the Eng. Lit. cliché spout?

Oh, and one more thing: no one reads Gertrude Stein.

*For some reason, it's always "fiction," genus, rather than "novel," species, with these types. Don't know why.

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