Book Review: Dedalus

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Dedalus by Chris McCabe, a sequel to Ulysses by James Joyce.

In the Republic of Consciousness podcast episode that discussed the prize’s 2019 longlist, Neil Griffiths mentioned that some readers consider Ulysses by James Joyce to be the best book ever written in the English language. I have heard it talked about as one of the most important works of modernist literature. Declan Kiberd (Irish writer and scholar) described Ulysses as

“a demonstration and summation of the entire movement”
“Before Joyce, no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking”

The book is vast (730 pages) and, when I have flicked through a copy considering a purchase, written in heavy language. I have not read it.

Ulysses is set in one day, 16 June 1904 – the day James Joyce first went out with Nora Barnacle who he would subsequently marry. Dedalus is mostly set the next day. It is a sequel of sorts although considerably easier to read. Such an audacious concept may be regarded as brave, or perhaps bonkers. It succeeds in being a lot of fun.

The writing plays with and mimics many great and classic works of literature in language and style, referencing and (mis)quoting revered writers with abandon. Interspersed are modern elements such as computer links that suggest you may click to choose your own adventure. Between each ‘Part’ are coded maps that can be slotted together. These summarise the action to date. Certain maps offer suggestions to “>GO TO” earlier or later pages. The book works when read sequentially or as a series of loops.

The story of Hamlet, with its study of a father-son relationship, is a key reference. In a wonderfully meta section the author is interviewed about his own father and his literary inheritance. I have neither read Hamlet nor watched it on stage. I know enough from summary and heresay to appreciate what is being done in Dedalus. Those with more detailed knowledge will likely enjoy the author’s play on particular features.

Dedalus: Act 1, Scene 1, is set in the Martello Tower at 8am. Stephen awakens hungover with memories of the previous day’s activities. He must somehow get to his teaching job so dons the trousers hanging on the back of a chair. They are not his. Outside he encounters Mulligan and then a dead body from the sea over which he vomits. He teaches a lesson at the school, visits a prostitute, goes for a drink in a pub, encounters Leopold Bloom who he calls Leonard. A man in black passes by on several occasions.

Leopold needs to talk to Stephen about Molly, his wife. He picks up the lotion she requested from the pharmacy, a task he should have done yesterday. He returns to the cemetery where they buried Dignam before seeking out Stephen. He is observed and lusted after by a priest.

The story flows and engages yet this is not a book that feels the need to follow any standard ‘rules’ of writing. There are pages that seemingly exist to play with the sounds made by word and letter combinations. A chapter titled ‘Cyclops’ has all the text on each page printed in a single circle, an eye looking out at the reader. There are stylised observations and commentary. Poems explore: urinating, sex, drunken high spirits. Any recoil felt reading descriptions of bodily functions serves to highlight how sanitised life is now expected to be.

“Something is rotten in the state of Dublin”

The paragraphs covering a pub scene are written in the vein of works such as: Gone With The Wind, 1984, Lolita, The Bell Jar, The Handmaid’s Tale, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and more.

A section of ‘Notes’ at the end of the book explores the story as a history of computers and suggests that the machine’s key developments were foreshadowed in Ulysses.

And all of this somehow works. The plot is almost incidental to the pleasure of reading the inventive prose and recognising where the author took each idea from, how he compiles and builds his tribute to Joyce’s work. It is clever but not irritatingly so. This is a writer playing with ideas and granting them the freedom to fly. It is glorious to read.

Max Porter is quoted on the cover saying:

“Parts of this book will remain with me, and pollute my reading of Hamlet and Ulysses, forever.”

I will not be adding these two great works to my reading pile, but I am very glad to have read Dedalus.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Henningham Family Press.

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One comment on “Book Review: Dedalus

  1. Good to know reading Ulysses isn’t a pre-requisite!

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