Wandering Rocks (A Little Light Relief)

Ulysses_OldDublinIn a list of “most difficult chapters to read” this one would rank thankfully low – so low that it was even enjoyable. I certainly appreciated the break. This chapter consists of many smaller episodes all interlinked with each other and with the other events in the book, but most easy enough to understand the basics of what and where. That’s not to say the meaning is easy to get at but still the relief from all that stream of consciousness from one point of view is genuine.

Oddly, even though this seems once more all about structure, here I got a real sense of what Joyce’s writing may be like if he did just write straight-forward prose. Y’know, like anyone else! Without the constant drone of allusion and the layers of puzzle it might at least have been a quarter of the length. I know though, that that is not the point. I just couldn’t help saying it anyway.

To the modern reader I guess the thing that most springs to mind in terms of a comparison (and I can’t think of the product names for the life of me off the top of my head) are some recent television adverts. There was recently a style (on British Television at any rate) for some complex arrangements of movement and meaning within a small space. Hard to describe, but you almost have it here in Wandering Rocks. There are lots of things going on in a sequence, then some things are repeated, some events cause other events and the whole thing continues with some new bits added to change the sequence. At any rate a kind of complex dance. Something else brought to mind is one of those long crane shots that they now do with steady-cams – the camera swoops around a scene, chasing bits of the action in an unfamiliar order that comes to make sense only the end.

Ulysses_SlocumWell, something like that. I never said I knew what I was talking about.

First off in the detail of the actual chapter I’d never even heard of the General Slocum tragedy! Which is unusual for me being of a rather morbid turn of mind. My own favourite (if I dare call it that) is the Fireman’s Wedding (1929). Anyway, that gives me another snippet for my collection and an excuse to get the step ladder out to consult my well worn copy of Fifty Great Disasters That Shook The World (dated 1939) at the very top of my book shelf! General Slocum is not in it, though what precisely constituted a tragedy in 1939 leaves me scratching my head as I’ve not yet read the episode entitled ‘The Tragedy of Parnell’. I’ve not got a copy of Sweets of Sin either, but that’s by the by!

So, what was it I enjoyed about this chapter? The screwed-up leaflet from way back that seems to be making its way out to sea! Spotting the different characters at different moments in somebody else’s scene. The rather rude story Lenehan has to tell about feeling up Molly in the cab, while Bloom engages in a spot of astronomy. The milky way indeed! The Dedalus children, Maggie, Katey, Boody, especially Dilly. The H, the E, the L and all the other letters making an appearance every now and then on and around the streets of Dublin on that day 16th June 1904.

Once again there are a few passages that don’t quite fit into my understanding. Ned Lambert shows a priest around some building. Long John Fanning and a few others seem set about some purpose – not sure what! And somebody else – I forget who – seems to be demonstrating some kind of contraption. Of course, me being me, and finding this novel rather on the difficult side, sometimes my mind begins to wander and I find myself reading in an outrageously bad (bad if it were out loud – brilliantly funny since it is in my head) Irish accent. I was doing that towards the end when we get to the description of the parade, which is, of course, to be read in a completely different style. I think I get the gag there, but it makes me wonder how many other japes I’ve missed out on by not appreciating the way in which something is supposed to be read. I have no idea how you tell one literary style from another, or even if it is style and not technique. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll learn something.

All that aside the enduring memory of this chapter will be Stephen’s young sisters and there interaction with each other, their father Simon and Stephen himself, who I believe is learning Italian while Dilly takes up French!? There is an absolute ton of other information and a load more characters, though whether they’ll make any further appearance I do not know: the blind boy; Mr Artifoni; Mulligan and Haines too; Ben Dollard; Tom Rochford. At least I care enough to find out! Onwards. Onwards!

3 thoughts on “Wandering Rocks (A Little Light Relief)

  1. “Rocks” is a great chapter for feeling your position in the book. That’s funny in a way, since the reference to Homer is about a area of constantly shifting rocks that make navigation so difficult. But in the confusion of the world Joyce has been carefully setting up, we find ourselves comfortable, probably for the first time, watching the pieces come together and seeing the plan.

    There’s many false paths here still. Things that seem to allude to new dramas which we’ll never see unfold. Most of them surround notions of poverty or government or invention. We’re given to believe these are important sketches of how everything might be related, but quite a few just give us background to major confrontations in “Circe” and “Cyclops.” But the meat here isn’t the separate mini-dramas but the mise-en-scene. This is also a rare chapter in which narrative voice is subordinate to dialogue and physical description. It’s possibly the most voyeuristic chapter in the book, something anyone with a background in comix should be happy to come to at last.

    And it serves as intermission. Dead in the center of the book we finally get to step back from the canvas a bit and see the way little flourishes of mark making come to form a complete picture.

    Here’s a funny story of my own troubled history with this book.

    I started trying to read it when I was in high school as I heard so much about it being “the toughest novel of pure cryptic genius ever.” Couldn’t manage it a bit of course, which, of course, bothered the shit of my eighteen-year-old arrogance. I kept trying every couple of years as friends who were going on for degrees in English kept talking about it. Still couldn’t manage and it was becoming a bit of an embarrassment to me (though I told no one, of course).

    Fifteen years after my first attempt and fourteen years past from today, my fifth reading of the novel was a breakthrough. I was living in Florence at the time after a failed relationship that led to a profitable year as a painter. I spoke only fumbling, touristy Italian and had begun to miss the jokes and idioms and concerns of my own American-meta-textual-Roseanne-Barr-television-savvy culture. So I picked ULYSSES up at a used bookstore on Via La Scalda hoping to use my time apart to really dig my heels into figure the damned thing out.

    This was the breakthrough for me because this is when I realized that ULYSSES was a comedy. The most sophisticated, structurally keen set off of fart jokes ever offered up to the English language (it’s more, of course, but this is the first time I got that all important access point to the novel’s greater poetry). I never made it past “Scylla and Charbydis” before and now, flying through those earlier chapters I read four times before, i was able to see the tricks and puzzles and poetics in a new light.

    “Wandering Rocks”, however, was something quite different.

    Have you ever been alone in a strange and foreign city, one where you’ve spent days trying to understand why they do things their way instead of yours, where asking the simplest questions like “what’s going on?” and “who’s that guy?” aren’t immediate nor conversational nor easy? Where customs and social behaviors, jokes even, that seem so familiar to everyone around you make you feel like you’re a child for not understanding them? Have you ever felt that the baggage you carry from one city of your own upbringing might mean nothing to people in this other, new and foreign city you’ve gone to?

    “Wandering Rocks” is, and was for me fourteen years ago in Florence, the moment where your sitting in a streetside cafe of the world and the city that Joyce has constructed and, suddenly, surprisingly, makes sense. Where you start to understand the beat of the city and of the people in it and, somehow, it doesn’t seem alien any more. I’ll always link my love of this book to that moment in my life and the rare sensation of knowing that the comfort of understanding comes slowly, but can happen anywhere.

    Oh. And Stephen speaks excellent Italian here, not the language of a student. The passages with his music teacher are written with idioms from the regional Italian found in Treiste, the Joyce exiled himself to when leaving Ireland.

    Smart, smart guy who’s work gives you new connections every time you revisit it.

  2. Ah yes, the leaflet, the “throwaway,” that’s one of our favorite images as well.

    You know I always think of Wandering Rocks being constructed like one of those solar systems scale models suspended on wire, like the Orrery invented by Philly’s own David Rittenhouse. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orrery But with meteorites and comets whizzing by in near-misses, and space junk and moons all following their own orbit but somehow syncing.

    It’s the episode I recognize most too, out walking the streets in Philadelphia and making comparisons to Ulysses, thinking of the tapping blind strapling and the sweep almost putting Lenehan’s eye out with his gear. I imagine Joyce wanting to write the whole book like that, all of the interconnecting, fleeting interactions, Whitman-esque in their way, the peripatetic thinker in his element.

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