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Thursday, October 2, 2008



by James Joyce

(4/5 stars)

Because "Ulysses" is so imposing with its epic length and pages of solid, tiny text I decided to get my feet wet with "Dubliners," which is not quite half the other's length. From what I read with "Dubliners", I'll have to give "Ulysses" a shot in the near future.

Normally I'd do an obligatory plot summary, but that would be a pointless exercise because A) There are 15 short stories that comprise the book and B) None of them really has a traditional "plot" to speak of. Rather, "Dubliners" is a serious of what we in modern parlance would call "character sketches." Think of it as each story being a portrait of some person or scene done in painstakingly vivid detail. Each story focuses on some small moment that often leads the character to discovering a melancholy truth about life.

The first stories focus on children encountering the harsh realities of the adult world--a priest dying and an encounter with a creepy, crazy old man--and then move on to teenage love and then more adult problems of marriage, family, and politics before a final meditation on death in the aptly-titled "The Dead."

The way Joyce captures the humanity of each character is so stunning; he taps into the soul of these people to expose the secrets, wishes, hopes, and fears that reside within each of us. It's hard not to see a part of yourself in one or more of these characters, almost as if Joyce knew you over 90 years ago better than you know yourself right now. Because while the technology may change, the human psyche remains the same.

The reason I can't give this four stars is that like any short story collection there's a fatigue that sets in upon reading "Dubliners." The longer the collection goes on, the more similarities can be seen in the characters and the situations, the descriptions and the dialog. It's like listening to an album of music and noting that song 10 sounds a lot like song 5, which sounds a lot like song 2. There's really no way to avoid that fatigue unless the writer uses a completely different style each time.

As well, reading a book written over 90 years ago that's set in Ireland can be a challenge for a modern (not quite 90) year old American. Footnotes and such can be helpful, but it also interrupts the flow of the reading.

Still, Joyce's uncanny knowledge of humanity is well worth any fatigue or nuisances.

That is all.

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