I am just going to go ahead and start by saying that this is by far the most cryptic book I have ever read in my life. There are books that are hard to follow, and then there is James Joyce's Ulysses. There are books that include allusions to other works, and then there is whatever is going on in this one. Reading long books is something I am used to. But this...this was a different experience entirely.
The Situation: Stephen Dedalus is a frustrated artists living in Dublin, teaching history at a boy's school. He is aloof, somewhat awkward around people, and tends to exist and operate mostly inside of his own head. It is clear from the very beginning of the novel that Dedalus is still deeply affected by the death of his mother, which about a year ago. The hero of the novel, Leopold Bloom, is the opposite of Stephen in many ways, but the two also have some things in common. While Dedalus can be hard to talk to and isolated, Bloom is friendly and cheerful, though still an outsider. However, Bloom does not mind his status as an outsider, and the words and actions of others do not affect him as much.
The Problem: Bloom may be better able to navigate life than his young friend, but he is still struggling with the death of his son, as well as his wife's infidelity, though the latter has not been confirmed. Bloom manages to be mature and grounded, and can even sympathize with others despite his own struggles. Meanwhile, Dedalus becomes harder to talk to as the novel progresses, though that could be attributed to the fact that he also becomes drunker, and his thoughts are less represented. Between the two of them, they encounter many different characters and situations as they go about their lives in early 20th-century Dublin.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in Dublin, Ireland in the early 20th-century. At first, the novel primarily focuses on Dedalus, with the character of Bloom being introduced in the fourth chapter, though the two men will not physically cross paths until much later in the book. Ultimately, the focus stays mostly on Bloom as he serves as the Irish everyman, and Dedalus fades further from the reader's view the drunker he gets. Joyce's story is highly allusive and structurally more or less follows Homer's Odyssey: Bloom represents Odysseus; his wife, Molly Bloom, represents Penelope; and Dedalus represents Telemachus. The novel is broken up into three parts and eighteen episodes, with each episode corresponding to a character in Homer's Odyssey. Although the original text did not include the Homeric titles, Joyce later produced them when helping a friend of his understand the structure of the book. As a whole, the novel is hard to follow, but some parts fare better than others as the structure can change from episode to episode, or even in the middle of one. Its cryptic nature is one of the main things the book is known for, as well as its history of censorship and prosecution for indecency.
My Verdict: Oh my goodness this was difficult. I have never had such a hard time finishing a book in my life, and I doubt I will ever have so much trouble again. At least I hope. Usually when I read a door stop, even if it is one I did not like, I still have some measure of accomplishment and joy when I finally finish. Turning over the final page of Ulysses gave me absolutely no sense of joy or completion. I did not get anything out of the story or connect with any of the characters. I will not be able to choose a favorite moment or a favorite character because, honestly, I do not feel like I understood enough of what happened in order to do so. Sure, Bloom seems like an okay guy, but there could have been some hidden abhorrent action that he committed that I completely missed because of my lack of understanding of what I was reading. Truly difficult stuff. Not for those who lack patience or determination.
Recommended Reading: For a door stop that is a bit more accessible, my first recommendation will always be Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. But if you wish for something a bit more modern, I will recommend Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.