When I first set out to read Ulysses, it interrupted a long-standing relationship I had with novels. We had an understanding, novels and I. They always let me in, allowing me to see their interior terrain. They were distraught friends, in need of a listener. I was happy to escape into their worlds and forget my own. I didn’t mind when they cost me sleep or made impetuous demands, when they went off on tangents or took me to unexpected or unpleasant places. Here was a relationship that sustained me—enthralling, vampiric. I consumed and was consumed.
The comfort of reading is that, no matter the hour or your mood, books are always available. Give yourself over to novels and they will reward you, sweeping you into their stories, their characters—into the lap of language itself. When you feel lost or alone, novels offer a place to reside.
When I first attempted James Joyce’s classic, however, I was affronted. I arrived eager, ready. Joyce sneered. I wanted shelter? Too bad. The world can be a cold place. Why should books be any different? Joyce slammed the door and bolted it shut.
This experience with Ulysses left me irate as a reader. No one—Faulkner, Duras, Proust, Beckett—had ever made me feel this way. As a doctoral candidate in comparative literature, I was accustomed to obscurity. Some novels might seem aloof at first, but inevitably they yield. They need you, after all.
Ulysses was different. Any time I found a foothold, Joyce would sense my relief and drag me back down with an unpunctuated passage. He didn’t reward my persistence. He hoped I would give up.
Joyce famously set out to “keep the professors busy for centuries.” Ulysses is evasive by design, not just coy but thorny. Ulysses is the guy who shows up on a first date in pajamas, hair askew, avoiding eye contact, making you question your self-worth. When Virginia Woolf complained in her diary that Joyce was “underbred” and “pretentious,” I sighed with relief that I was not the only one who thought so.
Still, I wondered: why is the world smitten with Ulysses?
The day I sat down and wrote a sentence that turned out to be my novel’s opening line, the words seemed to drop from the sky. I realized, later, that the sentence’s first word was “Leopold,” and its last was “bloom”—an oblique reference to Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses.
Maybe there could be a novel about Ulysses, I thought—about art that holds us at arm’s length. I stuffed the idea away. Who would read such a novel? Who would be crazy enough to write it?
Over time, though, that first sentence took root. I began thinking about it as a dare. I don’t really like Joyce, I told myself— gruff, snide, and so assured of his own genius.
But if we were to go on a date, where would it be? Writing The Sixteenth of June forced me to break into Ulysses. Forget courtship; I went ahead and moved in.
Can you guess what happened next? Forced to coexist with Joyce, I began to see past his chilly demeanor and pretentious posturing. I internalized his words, weighed his observations, and was surprised by his playfulness. This is what love is: when the line between you and someone blurs, and you can no longer tell where one ends and the other begins. Many Ulysses references snuck into The Sixteenth of June unbidden.
I have come to love Ulysses, but ours is less a romance and more an arranged marriage—a slow simmer rather than a burn. I sympathize with people who find Ulysses unreadable. I smile, remembering when I felt that way, too.
Some novels sweep you up while others hold you at bay. What matters is that we locate our own footholds and access points, our own ways in, trusting that what we discover will be worth it. This is the true pleasure of reading, and, perhaps, of love: not what we are given, but what we find.