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Joycean Pretensions or Just Good Writing

I’m reading Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. In many ways it’s an excellent novel. I immediately liked the characters and am more than interested to find out what happens to them. Having lived in Berkeley and Oakland and spent a lot of time on Telegraph Avenue it is almost impossible not to react with considerable sentiment to the book, though the book itself is not sentimental. On the other hand, I am often reminded of the immortal words spoken by Emperor Joseph II in Amadeus. When discussing with Mozart his latest composition, the Emperor said: ”...there are just too many notes, that’s all.” There are times when reading Telegraph Avenue when I say to myself, “There are just too many words.”[1] Still, Telegraph Avenue is an excellent read.

However, on page 239 of my edition, just over half way through the book, I ran into Chabon’s Joycean flow of consciousness. For eleven pages there are no periods or paragraph breaks. A friend in California emailed me saying she really enjoyed the chapter. Me, I found it annoying and pretentious, very grateful that it is only eleven pages long. I cannot discern the creative and/or structural purpose of including this Joycean imitation in the middle of the book, except that it might be conveying a free flying parrot’s point of view.[2] I can see no reason why it was not punctuated as is the rest of the book. I can see no added narrative value in leaving out punctuation. As result, I interpret the chapter as a pretentious allusion to James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is no doubt unfair, but I can’t help myself.

I have two problems with flow of consciousness writing. First, I don’t like Ulysses. It almost always tops the list in best novel surveys even though the book is practically unreadable. You have to read books about how to read Ulysses! I have a friend who took a entire correspondence course on how to read the book.[3]  Still, it is considered by virtually everyone as one of the greatest novels in the English language and has been lovingly imitated by many authors. Chabon’s short flow of consciousness (in comparison to Joyce’s which ran for forty-three pages in my edition) is not the first such flow to be inserted into a novel and certainly will not be the last. But it seems to me that the insertion should in some obvious way enhance the narrative. Why a flow of consciousness at that point in the novel? How does it add to our understanding of characterisation? Or plot? Or meaning? What value does it add to the overall narrative experience? Or does it simply associate the book and the author with Joyce and Ulysses? I am not adverse to reading challenging novels. For example, Bohumil Hrabal’s The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi), Milan Kundera’s Immortality, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and the six volumes of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust were all challenging but also rewarding novels in which part of the reward can only be realised by working your way to the end.

My second problem is that I simply do not like books without punctuation. It is, perhaps, that I do not possess the intellectual ability to understand the reason some novels must lack traditional structure. I have tried. I made it through Blindness and All the Names by the winner of the Noble Prize for Literature José Saramago, but crashed out on The Cave. Even Hrabal, one of my favourite authors, tried his hand in free flowing fictitious writing in Dancing Lessons for the Advanced Age. Saramago’s first two novels, in what has loosely been called his trilogy, are excellent, as I am sure is The Cave. And I enjoyed Dancing Lessons. But the structure of the novels did not seem to contribute to their value. The work it takes to get through the novels, due to the structure, did not enhance the rewards. If anything, the structure became a distraction from the novels’ inherent value. I spent much of my reading energy deciding where to place commas and periods and paragraphs. But perhaps that is the point! Perhaps if I were sitting with Saramago he would say the entire point is that I become an active participant in the creating of the novel and thus its meaning. And if that indeed is the case, then I can understand and accept the aim but have to admit I just don’t like it. 

It goes without saying, I could never even dream of standing in the shadows of writers like Saramago and Hrabal. And I must admit, Chabon’s eleven pages of free flowing bird flight did have commas, which helped.

Copyright © 2013 Dale Rominger

[1] Chabon might respond to my comment by echoing Mozart’s response to the Emperor: “Which few words did you have in mind?”

[2] A parrot by the name of Fifty-eight is set free after its owner dies.

[3] After he completed the course he concluded Ulysses is a great book. But I nonetheless ask, can a novel be great if you need to go to school to understand it? Or is that the point? The greatness of Ulysses is in its lack of understandabiltiy? I’m also aware that Ulysses is credited in changing the Western novel forever.

Reader Comments (2)

The author's name is Chabon, with a 'b' not a 'd'--interesting substitution. I'm still trying to get into the book myself, in spite of living three miles from Telegraph Avenue. I think I will have similar objections.

April 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarta Tobey

Marta, thanks. Slightly embarrassing. It's a voicing thing I do sometimes: "b" and"d" or "c" and "g" for example. Slight dyslexic surprises. Anyway, I did enjoy the book, was glad I read it and am happy for it to sit on my shelf. Dale

April 7, 2013 | Registered CommenterDale Rominger

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