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Thursday, June 17, 2004

difficult books. yes! name dropping. yes! preening. yes!

Since yesterday was the 100th anniversary of "Bloomsday" (the day depicted in the book), the BBC has a Cheat's guide to Joyce's Ulysses. It's far more entertaining than the book.

I tried reading Ulysses once, and I think I got about thirty pages into it before I realized there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to finish it; that stream-O'-consciousness stuff is tough reading: too much style, too little substance - or maybe, too much substance that I wasn't insterested in excavating, sifting and cataloging - who knows which flashback is going to be important later on, and which isn't? I did read Joyce's "Portrait Of the Artist as a Young Man" in high school, but that book was short enough that I could always see the end in sight - and regardless, it was a class assignment.

If I recall correctly, I tried Ulysses just after finishing "Gravity's Rainbow", another long hard brain workout, and was all like "I am the King of Book Readers! Which one of you bastards is next ? Arright Ulysses, spread 'em!" Well, James Joyce makes Thomas Pynchon look like J.K. Rowling. It was a long time before I tried any of the notoriously difficult books again.

But eventually I did dare to try another one, so I chose Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon", after hearing about it on Slashdot. That book was only difficult in that it had multiple plotlines happening in different eras - once you get familiar with the characters and their settings, it's fairly straightforward. It wouldn't be a difficult movie to watch. I felt somewhat unchallenged.

So then it was off to David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest"; it's a huge, sprawling slow monster of a book with multiple storylines and dozens of characters, set in a strange near-future Boston. It has 100 pages of endnotes that fill out the characters and their history with facts about the book's world, not necessarily about how the book relates to the real world - a technique used also in Jeff VanderMeer's excellent, and too short "City of Saints and Madmen"; it's a nice trick since it makes the text feel like a small window on an otherwise huge world. Like Ulysses, Infinite Jest has a very high detail to plot ratio, but I could at least catch most of the cultural references, and I felt more connected to the future Boston than I did to Dublin of 1904. It was tough reading at times, but I did enjoy most of it.

Now, after a seven-year wait, I've started re-reading Gravity's Rainbow, slowly, patiently. And happily, it's much easier reading this time. I should be done sometime near Christmas...

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