I was determined to write a novel upon graduating college. I meant to take an intensive Ulysses seminar during my senior year of Cornell but couldn't due to a scheduling conflict, so on my own I began slowly slogging my way through the big book -- alongside a stack of annotations and guide books -- a year or two out of school.
Why Ulysses? I'd read in high school and responded to Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and, later, was just about knocked flat by the last three or four pages of his great short story "The Dead" (its ending still, beat-for-beat, to me the most perfect prose thing ever written). But reading Ulysses without academic interference was the reading equivalent of a coach potato sitting up and deciding to run a marathon: a challenge and a dare and something that would come to consume months of my waking (and imaginative) life.
Ulysses changed my idea of what a novel could do. Making my way through it was at once the most joyous and shattering experience of my reading life: joyous because the book is such a technical (and emotionally rich) marvel; shattering because any self-respecting writer might read a page or two and decide to holster his or her pen right then and there.
I felt that perhaps the most efficacious -- only? -- way of exorcising (and celebrating) this almost certain impending paralysis of influence would be to just take the thing on headfirst. (I remember making the analogy to playing tennis with a player much, much better than you are: you go into the match knowing you will lose, but hoping you will emerge a better player for the experience.) So, at the tender and foolish age of 23 I thought, "Sure, I'll just go ahead and rewrite Ulysses, set it in New York in the 1990s, and recast Leopolod Bloom as a failed pornographer and Stephen Dedalus as a 10-year-old pot smoking girl genius." Because that's sort of what you do when you're in your early 20s and of a certain sad young literary bent. . .
All of which is why June 16 remains to this day the holiest of High Holy days on my calendar. And why I invite you to read this article, originally published in 2004 by The Village Voice, and to rejoice at the existence of St. James's great and unlikely and all-encompassing screwball book.
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