Ethan Nelson, Writer: So, today I’m so pumped that I get to blog about James Joyce’s much-celebrated novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Ethan Nelson, Reader: Um . . . yeah. Sure.
Ethan Nelson, Writer: Wait, aren’t you excited? This book is considered to be the forefront of the style known as stream-of-consciousness.
Ethan Nelson, Reader: It’s not a stream most readers like me would enjoy fishing in. Unless it’s Faulkner.
EN, W: What’re you talking about? Stream-of-consciousness is amazing. You follow thoughts around and around and around . . . and around. It’s the closet thing to reading a character’s mind you’ll get.
EN, R: But did it have to be about a main character that just isn’t that interesting? Or has such a disjointed life?
EN, W: You’re talking about Stephen Dedalus. Who has one of the coolest names in all of literature. Did you know that “Dedalus” is a nifty nod to Greek mythology?
EN, R: Wheeee–that doesn’t make A Portrait any better of a read. You think the readers of this blog are going to care about some lame reference to ancient times?
EN, W: They should! Even if you don’t like Stephen that much, there are still plenty of other cool characters. Like the priest who gives the scariest sermon EVER. Stephen’s dad pops up in Ulysses–clever of Joyce to link his novels with some of the same figures. Or if you’re not into the characters, there’s always the motifs of Catholicism and Irish nationalism to explore.
EN, R: Motifs? Did you really just use the word “motifs?”
EN, W: I did.
EN, R (facepalming): Themes are great and all, but readers care most of all about the story being . . . enjoyable. That’s pretty important. As far as I can tell, A Portrait is just this jumbled, semi-autobiographical mess about a young man growing up in Ireland right when tensions are boiling over between Ireland and Britain for Irish independence. Which sounds cool, but only if it was told in an understandable style.
EN, W: You’d appreciate it more if you understood that this is the seminal coming-of-age-novel for English literature. This builds on everything that came before (Dickens, Twain) and influences everything afterward.
EN, R: If I wanted a coming-of-age book, I’d read a novel where the protagonist actually came of age. As in, matured. Because by the end of A Portrait, Stephen seems like just this bitter guy who’s rejected everything that made him. That’s not a sign of personal growth.
EN, W: What if you thought of this book as an exploration of what it means to be an artist? After all, while Catholicism and Irish identity don’t do much for Stephen the adult, he does find self-discovery in–
EN, R: Self-discovery in the arts.
EN, W: Yes!
EN, R: Which sounds a lot like being a writer.
EN, W: Um . . .
EN, R: Which sounds a lot like James Joyce. Is this book just Joyce celebrating himself? I’m not saying A Portrait is some sort of ego trip for him, but we shouldn’t pretend that this novel is something more universal.
EN, W: So what if it’s grounded in his life? As a writer, I can attest that there’s not a word I write that doesn’t come from some of my past experiences.
EN, R: But does it need to be so blatant? Or scrambled into a style that’s like eating spaghetti one strand at a time when all you want to do is twist the noodles together and eat them together?
EN, W: Excusing that baffling metaphor, I’m getting the idea that you didn’t much are for this book.
EN, R: No, I didn’t. Nor do I think most readers of this blog would, either.
EN, W: There’s no denying, though, that if you’re a fiction writer like me, it’s almost a requirement to read Joyce. Without Joyce, there’s no The Sound and the Fury.
EN, R: Okay . . . .
EN, W: So, therefore, this book is appealing to some readers–and maybe other readers will just take some time to warm up to it.
EN, R: You’ve got to be kidding me.
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