Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Book 44: Ulysses by James Joyce

Today is Bloomsday.

For the uninitiated, June 16h is the day on which the novel 'Ulysses' takes place. The main character of the book is named Bloom.


Now, I have a blue t-shirt that my parents gave me from a literary museum in Philadelphia that they visited on one of their frequent trips. It says, "Rejoyce!" in big letters and I like wearing it because I would never wear anything that said "Rejoice!" but I sort of wish I could.

I finally got around to finishing 'Ulysses' last year. I'd gotten 600 pages in the year I spent in France but then I came back to the States before I'd finished and my life sort of swept out of control for the next 10 years or so. I'd read 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' and 'The Dubliners' but I'd never finished The Holy Grail.

The fact that I knew what Bloomsday was, that I wore a t-shirt commemorating that actual/fictional day, never having read the book all the way through, should give you an idea the place that James Joyce has in my family life. You know how Jews leave a place open at the table? I am so ignorant that I don't know who the place is for, the expected Messiah or God himself but I know that James Joyce is the closest thing to an empty expectant plate in the O'Malley house.

When my father was reading you could not reach him. You would say 'Dad' and his eardrums literally repelled the syllable right back at you. You said it again. Again rebuffed. A third time brought the mildest of acknowledgment but you pretty much had to climb in his lap and grab him by the ears to get past the book. There were times I resented that distance. It awed me at the same time.

His concentration was so fierce that his other senses dulled. What a brain.

I dove back into 'Ulysses' some time last year and read it riding the bus back and forth from Santa Monica. The bus has been a blessing and a curse for me, a place where I've been able to rekindle my reading flame and dive back into many albums I cherish, but also a visible daily reminder that my life has not turned out the way I envisioned for myself.

One of the things I'll always be grateful to that bus for is the pages it gave me time to read. I would walk from work to pick up Cashel at his elementary school, just over a mile. On that walk I would talk to my Dad if he was up to it and get the update on how his day was going. We'd chat about the Red Sox or Celtics or Patriots or Cashel. Rarely did we discuss what was happening to him because it didn't need articulation. Then he'd be tired out and I'd be at the school and we'd say good night. Then I'd walk Cash home and shortly thereafter I'd be on the bus reading 'Ulysses'.

It would take me a minute to rearrange the cells of my brain in order to take that language in. My headphones would be blaring something away which would drown out the sound of the bus itself and the people on it and the traffic around it. Without the music I couldn't read. I wonder if this is what the 4 kids running around were for my dad, the bit of himself that he couldn't concentrate without. It always cracked me up, how far he could go into a book, how clamorous we had to be to drag him back out.

Looking back on 'Ulysses' for me is like looking back on a particular day of my childhood. It doesn't matter which day. Any day I pick naturally contains all the other days. Any specificity contains all the generalities, any macrocosm leads to all the microcosms.

The moment I woke up when I was 4 and couldn't walk because my hip hurt. Walking was still new enough to me that I assumed that perhaps you stopped being able to walk at some point so I just went back to crawling. My mom knew something was up with me when I crawled into the kitchen for breakfast.

But that moment contains every moment from that kitchen and spreads out to the living room where I first saw my mom with her new haircut, a curly perm. I think I cried because she was different. That shoots me around the corner into the den where Sheila and I had so much fun we almost went crazy. Up into my room where I listened to the Red Sox on the radio and looked out over the back yard for what seemed an eternity.

So, yep. Today is Bloomsday. And I read 'Ulysses' last year on the bus.

I don't know what the book is all about. But then, I don't know what life is all about either. If walking is no longer an option I guess I'll have to crawl.

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