The professors have turned it into a cottage industry, the writers into an unattainable idol, the Irish into a tourist attraction—but we forget at our peril what James Joyce’s Ulysses meant to its first and best readers a century ago this year.
Margaret C. Anderson and Jane Heap—grande dames of Chicago modernism and editors of the Little Review—risked prison to serialize it in their magazine, as the censors declared it pornographic. Its reputation aside, more licentious bookworms will likely be deterred long before they reach the juicy bits, probably somewhere around the “ineluctable modality of the visible.” Press on, and one quickly realizes its frankness about sex serves a greater purpose. A remarkably funny read, it’s a send-up at once scorching and loving of the Dubliners Joyce grew up with, who in their provincialism and pettiness rejected him yet whom he never forgot even after he decamped to Europe, never to return. And it’s a pipe bomb of a book too, full of vicious and barely disguised attacks on British imperialism, Catholic theocracy and vulgar nationalism in a colonized Ireland still squarely in the world’s underdeveloped periphery. But above all Joyce is a champion for the artistic way of life, his novel an exemplar of formal experimentation in literature—a victory he achieves not through polemic but mastery of what came to be called the stream of consciousness.
“Let us trace the pattern,” wrote Virginia Woolf by way of manifesto, “however disconnected and incoherent in appearances, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.” A most subtle effect, achieved through methods still considered exotic by too many readers. Sometimes in a monologue rendered disjointed by raw emotions, other times through narration that flits without warning between minds, and even at moments in a string of unpunctuated phrases, a stream-of-consciousness novel attempts to sketch what philosophers call a phenomenology—the texture of our inner experience, the “what it’s like to be” us, the sound of thoughts in our heads before we’ve put them into words.1
Why go and do a thing like that? Because to capture in language our daydreams, our private musings—in all their obscenity and grace—is to pick the lock of the human soul. Novels as classically conceived only see “character” as revealed by action, social type, conscious choice or self-narrative. Writers like Joyce have bottled lightning, rendered the invisible visible, dived beneath the ice. What’s there is sometimes frightening, always surprising: our animal sensuality, our intrusive thoughts, the earworm melodies we hum at the first opportunity, the obsessions we can’t escape, memories of smells, hatreds and fears, a playful bit of whimsy, a trauma we buried deep. When in prose carefully structured to imitate the patterns of the mind these aspects of consciousness reveal themselves to us as they do in life, through a slow unfurling, we realize that what we’re reading has the rhythm not of a story but of experience itself—somebody else’s experience, normally so mysterious.
Of course, there are many uses to which one can put the stream of consciousness; Joyce is merely the most famous example, and not even my personal favorite. Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, Clarice Lispector and Toni Morrison achieved a similar immortality through their own variations on the form.
But one can’t help but notice the lack of such techniques in much contemporary American fiction.2 This would be no great disaster if we’d moved on to greater heights of innovation. But if anything our living writers seem to suffer from a kind of amnesia. Open up almost any U.S. novel from the current century and the texture of the mind is almost nowhere to be found; what abounds instead is a style of narration and description even more formulaic than that of novels from before modernism. Even autofiction—the most promising recent literary movement, which does have its own virtues—retains the same tone (by turns journalistic and lyrical) and structure (sentences narrated crisply as if they were plain conscious speech) as any old conventional story.
Why not take this as a challenge: What does the stream of our consciousness feel like today, and what kind of novel could capture it? In this issue, we’ve selected two extracts from novels that at the time of this writing are very difficult to find in the U.S.—one untranslated, the other out of print—and perhaps for this very reason have something to teach us.
The first is an extract from the 1992 novel Divine Days by Leon Forrest, a little-known avant-garde author of the late twentieth century who won high praise from such figures as Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow but has nevertheless remained obscure up to now. A Chicago native from a middle-class Black family who eventually became a respected professor at Northwestern, Forrest cut his teeth serving in the military, working at his family’s bar and reporting for community-owned newspapers in his neighborhood while trying to write novels on the side—a path not terribly dissimilar to that of his protagonist Joubert Jones, on the cusp of his thirties, working at his family’s bar and trying to collect material for his theatrical masterpiece. Our excerpt, “The Fall and Rise of McGovern McNabb,” concerns the attempts of various regulars at the bar to resuscitate the titular McNabb, a down-and-out former boxer lying stone-cold drunk on the sawdust floor. Joubert’s notebooks, the novel’s chapters, have the feel of oral history told by a true raconteur, hopping at will between stories-within-stories that are haunted by the diverse voices of the South Side, its taverns and its streets, its heroes and hustlers.
The second is an excerpt from a novel published last year titled Días de tu vida, or Days of Your Life, by the Mexican novelist and literary critic Bárbara Jacobs. The conceit of the novel is that it’s the deathbed confession of a woman named Patricia to her friend, a “reporter,” as she suddenly unleashes a continuous and erratic monologue uncovering the secret of her whole existence, every important detail in her life, no stone left unturned. Like Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the book is impersonating someone else who’s telling us their real-life story—in this case the author’s sister, whose death eight years ago was what got the project started in the first place. This extract, titled “The Emigrants,” focuses on the complex history of Patricia’s family. Jacobs, whose Lebanese grandparents of mixed Jewish and Maronite Christian faith moved to Mexico in the 1940s, grew up speaking five languages and crisscrossing international borders. Through Patricia’s clipped, digressive and feverish voice, Jacobs circles vertiginously around the deaths of dozens of her friends and family members over the years, as well as the joys of the moments they spent together, laying bare the ravages of devouring time in its passage.
Both novels are inspired by Ulysses. Jacobs is a lifelong Joyce reader, and Forrest noted in interviews that the two rhythms inspiring his prose are those of Joyce and Billie Holiday. We can’t think of a better way of celebrating the centennial than sharing them with you.
—John Michael Colón
Read “The Fall and Rise of McGovern McNabb,” excerpted from Divine Days, here
Read “The Emigrants,” excerpted from Días de tu vida, here
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Leon Forrest (1937-1997) was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, with roots in Catholic New Orleans and Baptist Mississippi. His first novel was There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden (Random House 1973); it was edited by Toni Morrison, who later called him “a giant of a writer.” Forrest went on to write three more novels, which were beloved by critics but did not sell well. His magnum opus, Divine Days, was published by a Chicago-based independent press in 1992 and went out of print after a fire destroyed most of the inventory. (It was reprinted by W. W. Norton, but fell out of print again shortly thereafter.) A definitive edition will be reissued this winter by Northwestern University Press under their new Seminary Co-op Offsets imprint, with hundreds of revisions that Forrest was unable to implement while he was alive.“The people who fail in life are those who can’t reinvent,” Forrest told Chicago magazine in 1997. “This is something we learn from jazz musicians, who are always reinventing the musical form. I look for ways that the chaos of American values can be penetrated. Values which are rather shabby can be transcended by a certain cunning and bravery, a certain optimism.”
Bárbara Jacobs, a novelist, essayist and translator, lives in Cuernavaca and Mexico City, where she was born in 1947 to a family of Lebanese immigrants. A fixture of the Latin American literary intelligentsia, she has been a regular columnist for the Mexican daily La Jornada since 1993 and is the author of more than twenty books. Of these, only one has been translated into English: her award-winning debut novel, Las hojas muertas (1987), released under the title The Dead Leaves by Curbstone Press in 1993. “The Emigrants” is drawn from her most recent book, Días de tu vida (Ediciones Era 2021), and, like The Dead Leaves, was translated by David Unger. She began writing the book shortly after her sister’s death and completed it during the pandemic; she has announced it will likely be her last. When asked by the Spanish newspaper El País why she writes experimental fiction, Jacobs replied: “By now the linear books have all been written and they’re insurmountable, in all their styles, periods, and languages.”
Art credit: Pierre Roy, Boris Anrep in his Studio, 65 Boulevard Arago, 1949. Photo © Tate. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported).