And now to something completely different. I just finished Ulysses. Finally! I got the book as a birthday present from my girlfriend in 2007. I immediately read the introduction but after a few pages of the actual book, I realized it wouldn’t be a book I could read en passant. So I put it away and concentrated on my thesis project. Finally, after a year or so my girlfriend decided to kick my butt, bought her very own copy and we started reading it together. Even with her support, it took a loooong time. We had long breaks in between and most of the time, she was a chapter or two ahead of me. I overtook her eventually and in a coup de grâce, I finished it this weekend.


Was it worth it? Is it a book that should be in the shelf (and it the head) of culturally interested individual? (More after the jump…)

Hard to tell. The experience of reading it was dominated by feelings of confusion and sheer frustration for me. It’s a high price to pay and there is no payoff. You are struggling for the struggle’s sake. You can just as well read the excellent secondary literature and get a similar understanding of the book’s revolutionary aspects. In fact, you will probably have to read the secondary literature even if you read the book itself because it’s sometimes so damn difficult to get your bearings straight. So I would only recommend going through it if you have a genuine interest in it AND if you value experiencing something on your own – even if it is unpleasant.

I heard about the book from the dean of KISD, Prof. Michael Erlhoff. He always spoke very highly of it in the lecture (there is only one at KISD). The insights he got out of that single piece of literature were amazing so I decided I needed to read it. And of course, I do find experiencing things on your own tremendously important.

Finally, what’s my impression? Well, a lot of the revolutionary things are perfectly summarized in the secondary literature. It is a day in Dublin with pretty mundane things happening. Each chapter describes one hour of the day but is conceptually different. Generally, there is a great deal of thoughts of the main characters seamlessly entwined with the description of the events – which is a big source of the confusion. You might read a description of events in a shop and suddenly, there is a odd sentence that seems to be out of place. You realize after careful reading that it is a thought that just popped into the character’s mind. And of course, the sentence is missing the subject or the verb or both or it is referencing something you will read about (or miss) a couple of chapters later. The culmination of that technique is the famous final chapter which is made up of 8 huge sentences spanning about 40 pages. They represent a “stream of consciousness” of one of the characters. Nice stylistic twist but I would challenge the notion that thinking is characterized by lack of an equivalent for punctuation.

And in fact, this is one of the things I would criticize about the book. Much of it is seems like a writer is showing off. Oh look, I can write a sentence of 4000 words or immitate medieval style. Good for you pal, what was the point of this exercise again exactly? Of course, there is always some point behind it but I can’t shake the feeling that Joyce didn’t really need 800 pages of brainfuck to get this across.

But that’s just superficial. The real problem is conceptual. I think the book got old. One of the revolutionary things about it was that it deals with the simultaneity and complexity of mundane modern life. There are no heroes doing great things in it. No life-changing insights or character arches. It is just one day and yet it deals with all the mundane little things. That’s mind-blowing in 1922. In 2008, with E-Mail, SMS, IM, Twitter, Blogs, Facebooks, we decode and construct the mundane little events of dozens of our friends and relatives. We read our own Ulysses every friggin’ day. The concept behind it has become the very lifestyle we lead. This is both a proof of the ingenuity of the book and it’s grave at the same time. In fact, I believe the things that made Ulysses so great such as its complex language or convoluted cross-referencing are today associated with bad writing. We don’t need Ulysses. We even can’t afford Ulysses. Finding our way in the labyrinth of information we are faced with everyday, the last thing we want is an Irish show-off who gets off on making comprehension deliberately harder.

But it’s a complex book and I can’t write it off so quickly. There were some chapters I had great time with. I loved the (surprisingly less popular) chapter where a teen-aged girl tries to seduce the main character by flashing him with her panties. By the end of the chapter, the perspective switches to the main character and hilarity ensues as we see the same situation from his eyes. Change of perspective gets me every time.

The both famous chapters, Wandering Rocks (a chapter consisting of dozens of little episodes happening to different characters at the same time on different locations) and Penelope (the steam of consciousness at the end.. but I admit I might have liked it only because it was smutty) were great indeed. I hated the Oxen of the Sun, though (a chapter where the literary style evolves from medieval scriptures, over modern prose to slang). I had high hopes on that one and completely failed to recognize any of the literary styles or even understand what happened. I think it’s another sign of the book getting old (or simply my ignorance).

So I have mixed feelings. To end on a positive note, I frequently catch myself experiencing Bloomian episodes myself: thinking about the futility of religion while picking bananas in the supermarket. Not that I didn’t do that before but after reading it in a book, the grotesqueness of it hits me in the face. So good job Joyce, next time make it shorter please.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

2 responses to “Ulysses”

  1. 020200

    Thanks for your interesting review! I never read this book, but I think that much of the problems you are mentioning here, in fact come, are rooted in another time. Imagine a world even without TV. Books were one of the main source for pleasure and leisure time. So flipping over 4000 words-sentences was no problem at all for the readers. For no surprise it’s known, that today we got the “3 minute span”. For myself I totally skipped reading novels, in favour for specialized books. I never was a strong novel-type of guy. Man, I even skipped going to movies!

    Lately I was listening to a professor on radio, and between the lines I figured out, that there are signs, (it *could* be), that the younger people nowadays become different in *knowing* and *remembering* things, just because they do not have to remember at all. Information is present. Always. Knowing is something else now, than 20 years ago.

    Let’s stay at switching perspectives. Isn’t it ironic, that the readers (we today) that the author (or other postmodernism) had in mind are not capable of reading this stuff? From my point-of-view revolutionary literature from our days would be not necessarily short, but almost brutal simple. Quite the opposite of Joyce.

  2. Simon Ferrari

    Twitter and Japanese cell-phone novels aside, our minds are still just as capable of understanding every allusion and connection in Ulysses if we take the time to do so. People spend their entire lives studying the book. I was in Dublin once for Bloomsday. It’s pretty fucking wild.

    This is how genius works. One dude spat his brain onto some paper, and now people dedicate their lives to analyzing it.

    Sure it’s long-winded, but so were the Super Nintendo JRPGs that remain my personal favorite games of all time. RPGs are, almost across the board, shorter these days because of the increased expenses of asset creation. Doesn’t mean our attention spans for such things has decreased objectively.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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