Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Locals Only

On the occasion of the 100th Bloom's Day -- OK, really it's the 82nd Bloomsday since the book was published -- I'd like to write a bit about John Steinbeck. If ever there was a modern writer who'd read Joyce who was utterly uninfluenced by him, at least on the face value of his work, it was Steinbeck. They surely have some superficial similarities -- books banned as subversive and pornographic, etc. -- but I think all but the most tortured scholars would concur one don't read like t'other.

First I'd like to tell the story of how I read Ulysses for the first and thus far only time. In the summer I turned 20, I checked the book out from the Swarthmore College Library on a Tuesday in July, and read it more or less in one sitting (over three days, with about four hours sleep or so), and returned it on Friday afternoon. During this period I "worked" at my job at the college observatory on the Grant Measurement Instrument, comparing locations of stars from slides so old most of them had been taken before the historical Bloom's Day. I spent hours at this job in a dark room staring through a little lens, generating punch cards with measurements on them, taking the cards to a card reader, running computer programs to analyze the cards, refiling glass slides in a bunker that smelled like the end of the world and could've survived it, and starting over again. It was fairly meaningless drudgery; I wasn't an Astro student nor particularly knowledgeable about the problem being investigated. I made $3.35 an hour and got a thank-you in the one publication that resulted from the thousands of hours of work, introducing me in a very meaningful way to academia. Most of this work was done at night to provide an opportunity for some occasional observation on the college's telescope, but also because for reasons related to the perverse state of my psyche I preferred staying up all night and (supposedly) sleeping during the day. I read Ulysses before and after work, during breaks, during mealtimes, and at many points while trying to work, in incredibly dim light. I kept reading it when I should have been sleeping, and read it quite possibly when I was sleeping.

I'd like to be able to say I did this stream of consciousness reading of the great stream of consciousness novel as some sort of brilliant literary affectation, but the circumstances were accidental. The campus, at least in those days, in summertime was incredibly boring. The 100 or so students working on summer research projects were scattered across off-campus housing: cheerleader and soccer camps took over the dorms. Not a thing on campus was open after 4:30. The snack bar was open from 10 am to one. One couldn't even get into the vending machines after hours. No internet, of course, no cable TV, we didn't have a phone. VCRs were a rumour. No car: the only escape was into Philly on the train, but that required expenditure of money that would eat up a day's wages. So mostly what I did that summer was read whatever I could get out of the campus library. I went all the way through William S. Burroughs, who was the most interesting relatively contemporary novelist represented fairly completely in the library's collection, Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, and their ilk. I wasn't smart enough to know to go through Willa Cather, Henry James, or Booth Tarkington, although I did go through Melville after I discovered the weird wonderfulness of The Confidence Man. On the day I took out Ulysses, it was basically because it had a reputation and it was the only thing I could locate that I recognized. I grabbed it and read it because it was the only thing I had to read.

I was a horrible person that summer. Skipping the ugly details, I was at a nadir as far as my ability to interact honorably with other human beings or even myself. We lived on a diet of Tiny T's $1 hoagies and 16-ounce returnable Yuenglings and Budweisers and not much else. I started out the summer as great friends with my housemate and ended it, for reasons still obscure to me but which no doubt were at least 50% my fault, not on speaking terms. I was broke, on my way to dropping out (temporarily) the following year, lost and not in a particularly good spot to be lost and find a lifeline someplace.

Now I wish I could say Ulysses changed my life and changed all that, but I can't. It was just another cool book I read that summer, and the bizarre, nearly unbalanced state of mind I was in at the time I read it simply can't be replicated. I haven't tried to read it again: why bother? I read it as close to real-time as Bloom's Day itself, and it penetrated my brain as much as it could if I'd re-read it 10 times since. I may re-read it someday, but I think I'll save it for a rainy day, metaphorically speaking. I have had a shot of Bushmill's on Bloom's Day every year since, I will say, but I like Bushmill's.

So whaddya know, here we are on the great anniversary and there's a whole Ulysses and Bloom's Day industry partying on. There are two types of people doing this celebrating: those who have read the book and those who haven't. For the most part the former appear to be g-literati who revel in the depth and complexity and nuance and reference of the book, its very impenetrableness being proof of its importance, or at least a source of many theses. For the latter, particularly in Dublin, it's the idea of the book and Joyce that they celebrate, not the specific, which seems oddly honest until you hear the same people pontificate about Dublin, Joyce's genuineness, etc. I won't make you suffer by reproducing the New York Times editorial today.

So back to Steinbeck. I live in the heart of "Steinbeck Country", that is to say, Monterey County, California, not New York City or Long Island (where in fact Steinbeck ended up living the greater part of his life). Around here, we have the Steinbeck Museum, the Steinbeck Center, the Steinbeck Bookstore. There's a statue of him on Cannery Row. His characters, hardly Disneyesque, are used to name the sea otters at the aquarium. You can go to Steinbeck Realty and stay at the Steinbeck Inn. Steinbeck, to this area, is a mascot, not a writer.

Like Dublin rejected Joyce in his lifetime, Salinas and Pacific Grove rejected Steinbeck in his, at least until he turned into a cottage industry. I read through Steinbeck again when I first moved out here, found some things to enjoy I hadn't before, found some things that were just as annoying the second time around. Steinbeck has a lot of low-lifes in his work, and certainly more than one gets a sense of from Joyce (or his interpreters), genuinely felt the music of their lives even if he was, in the end, just another college boy writing about somebody else's life. At least he wasn't the kind of bull-generator Hemingway was. He at least wrote what he overheard, if not what he knew. His brushes with symbolism don't get in the way, too much.

So I don't know anything about Dublin except what I've read. But I know something about this area, enough to know Steinbeck would be appalled by the shot glasses and t-shirts with his picture on them, the package tours, the Disney-like Okie camp, the lack of any comprehension of the plight of the 1930s migrants relative to the illegals working the same fields today, the executives of giant agribusinesses contributing the maximum to the Bush campaign in droves the same way their grandfathers owned the canneries and factory farms that made the Joads miserable and poor. I expect that's what today's Centenary of Ulysses is like in Dublin: post-ironic, I guess.

I love Joyce, would probably enjoy him more than Steinbeck in a way if I had time, so this is not meant to be a trashing of his literary legacy so much as his non-literary -- celebrity? -- legacy (much as Steinbeck himself was a celebrity for a quarter century).

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