Thursday, August 4, 2011

Book 98: Dubliners by James Joyce (Finished).

I am somewhat intimidated by Joyce. After my failed attempts to take part in the Ulysses readalong this past spring, I thought I would never gain the courage to tackle his work again. But I figured I would start small with Dubliners, a collections of Joyce's short stories. I brought it on vacation with me, hoping that reading it by the pool would help me tackle it.

But no amount of fruity drinks or pretty little umbrellas could help me read these stories. In fact, I just plain stopped reading on vacation so I could avoid Joyce. Instead, I played hours of Suduko on Homer (nookcolor). Productive? Not really.

But, once we were on the plane back to Detroit, I told myself I had to finish the stories before we landed, or else. I'm not sure where that threat was going to take me, but it worked because I finished the stories and promptly told Matt how much I hated them.

To be fair, there was one story I actually loved and two I could tolerate. But the other twelve? Awful. I had to force myself through them. And I sincerely tried. I wanted to like more of them, I wanted to appreciate Joyce's writing, but I just couldn't. A lot of the time I just had no idea what he wanted me to get from his story. I was left thinking, "Ummm...and the point was?"

Perhaps I am not intelligent enough to appreciate his genius. But I was bored. At least the 60 pages of Ulysses I read were fully entertaining and full of ridiculousness. That I could be entertained by.

I should probably talk about the stories I did like. And perhaps you can read those and skip the rest. "A Little Cloud" is about two men who were once close friends. Eight years has separated them from each other and in that time period, they have grown to be very different people. Over a small meal and a few drinks, they discuss what they've done and the lives they led. One has had adventures in places like Paris, with women and money, while the other married and has a child. Joyce explores the contrast between the two from the point of view of the man who married. I liked that after the conversation in the bar, we follow the man home to meet his wife and child. I could sense what Joyce was exploring-the difference in choice and where our choices may lead us.

The other story that I sort of enjoyed was "A Mother." This was third from the end in the collection, and by this point, I needed a laugh. And I did chuckle during this one. The mother in the story is slightly overbearing in pushing her daughter into musical society. During a negotiated concert, her daughter has not been paid in advance and the mother starts demanding her daughter's payment. This one made me laugh in the "oh I am so glad I am not her daughter" kind of way as her behavior was embarrassing. I mean, don't we all have those moments where family members embarrass us? Anyway, the story seemed much lighter than the others and I enjoyed the "break" from some of the heavier stories.

Hands down, the best story in the bunch was "The Dead," which is also kind of heralded as Joyce's best. In this story, we meet a large group of family members at a mansion for dinner on Christmas Eve. They talk, laugh, share memories and sing, but soon one family member is reminded of someone dead that they had loved a long time ago. I don't want to say anything else, but the way Joyce slowly drew me in really grabbed me. The mystery of who "the dead" was had me turning the pages in anticipation. And since this story was a little longer than the others, I felt more comfortable with who the characters were and why they did the things they did. I can see why this story has so much power and punch. I think that this story would be enough to whet your appetite for Joyce.

I feel like I should at least say that I can appreciate what Joyce was doing with these stories. They vary in character and setting, but we see a little bit of everything in them. We see the poor and the wealthy, the male and the female. We see the sense of choice in each of the stories, and perhaps a little bit of fate.

But for me, the majority didn't work for me. I had to trudge through them looking for the gems. I am hoping this won't be the case when I tackle The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or when I work up enough courage to try Ulysses again, but at least I know now that there might be something of value hidden in those as well. I just have to dig.

Anyone else have experience with Joyce or with these stories? Am I completely off base to have disliked so many of them? Please share!


  1. I've actually never read Joyce. I somehow got through my English degree without reading him at all. Not sure how I pulled that off. I have to say that everything I've heard about his works don't really tempt me to give him a try. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. This is the only Joyce I've read, and to be honest, I have no plans of reading anything else. Joyce comes off as an arrogant person to me, which makes me feel antagonistic and disinterested.

    The Dead didn't do much for me, unfortunately...the epiphany was predictable and I was left wondering what the point was. I did love The Little Cloud though. :/

    I guess I expected more of a certain kind of depth from him. I don't have a natural appreciation for heavy symbolism, which is perhaps where he shines?

  3. I liked this book more than you did, but I'm still nervous to read any of his other works. “A Little Cloud,” and “The Dead” were by far my two favorites. The stories are definitely depressing, but I think I was expecting them to be horrible (I don't know why) so my expectations were low.

  4. I feel your pain. I've even blogged about it in the past.

    Cancel my passport and call me a traitor but, Irish or not,

    I HATE James Effing Joyce!

    Reading James Joyce is like having sex in the bath. (No really, it is.)

    The best thing about having sex in the bath is being able to say you've had sex in the bath. The worst thing about having sex in the bath, is having sex in the bath.

    So I am able to say (rather smugly) I have read Portrait of the Artist. But it was not a fun experience. And I have no intention of following it up with the Ulysses Jacuzzi version.

    (I did like The Dead, but it was too little too late, James.)

  5. I really like these stories. Sorry they didn't work for you .... Sure, they are depressing, but I just really liked them. Need to revisit, in fact...

  6. I struggled with Dubliners, too. I'm glad I'm not the only one. But it felt like such an accomplishment to finish!