December 26th, 2010
I like how this book starts, the way the first sentence takes you immediately into a place of questions or uncertainty or play: “Step inside and take a look, or perhaps he said a book, sweeping his magic wand in a semicircle in front of him” (3). The story is structured as a walk through a museum about James Joyce, or maybe it’s a whole museum just about Joyce’s Ulysses. We move through the museum—and Joyce’s work—along with our narrator and the tour group he’s part of: the bow-tied museum guide, a loud American professor, a quiet man with a laptop, and three “readers” (two men and a younger woman) called A, B, and C, who seem, maybe, or maybe not, to work with the museum. After the museum guide gives an outline of Homer’s Odyssey, a reminder of its sections and structure, we move straight into Joyce’s Ulysses: Buck Mulligan and the Martello tower, then Mr. Deasy’s school and the history lesson Stephen gives there, and so on, through the book. The characters all put forth their own interpretations of Joyce’s plot and how it relates to Homer, their own ideas about what the right way(s) to read Joyce’s work are—the autobiographical or not, the emphasis on Dublin vs. the emphasis on the structure provided by Homer’s work, etc. There’s lots of wordplay amidst the quibbling, particularly in short sections at the end of the chapters called Passageways: passages like this:
They all burst out laughing, said the Cicerone, when one of Stephen’s pupils tells him Pyrrhus was a pier.
A pyrrhic pirouette that gives Stephen an empirical victory over the dock of the bay, said A.
Encore “pier,” said B the Francophone. (43)
I like the wordplay, and I like how this book often imitates the style of Joyce’s,—a chapter with the questions and answers of a catechism, a stream of consciousness chapter like Molly’s monologue—though I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say, as the back cover puts it, that the characters’ conversations consist of “walking the line between a slapstick parody of the Joyce industry and a legitimate “guide for the perplexed””: it’s playful and funny, yes, but the humor is more subtle than what I would call parodic. I did appreciate the book’s steadiness as a guide: it’s been six years or so since I read Ulysses in college (and OK, confession, I didn’t finish it—we were supposed to finish it up just before finals week and it just was not happening—I did read most of it, though) but I never felt lost or overwhelmed while reading The House of Ulysses. I think Ríos’s book probably works best if you have read at least some of Joyce’s Ulysses, but even if you hadn’t, I still don’t think you’d be too lost, and this book might provide some inspiration to go read (or re-read) Joyce, to experience for yourself Joyce’s telling of a day in the life of Dublin, Stephen Dedalus, and Leopold Bloom.