An Ann Arbor Odyssey: A Day with 'Ulysses'

Tuesday, February 16, 2016 - 6:18pm

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Illustration by Shane Achenbach

 

Telemachus: 8:11 a.m.

The epic begins with a ringing phone.

I pull my pink comforter off of my body, climb out of bed and answer the phone. I open my front door to find Kelli, a fellow “Ulysses” reader. Kelli has dark hair, a nose ring and a wide smile. I realize I’ve never actually had a conversation with her.

For our final exam in John Whittier-Ferguson's class on James Joyce, we will be reading all of Joyce’s “Ulysses” aloud. I offered my apartment as a starting location because the novel opens in a tower, and I live on the 10th floor. It’s not Dublin, but I do have a pretty good view of the Diag.

Kelli and I make awkward small talk in my kitchen until Yardain walks in, unannounced. Yardain was one of my first friends freshman year, and now, in the middle of our senior year, our relationship has an easy familiarity. Proving this point, he immediately begins cracking eggs into a large glass measuring bowl. Watching him, I realize I’ve made my first error of the day.

“Oh no!” I say. “I don’t have olive oil.”

“It’s fine,” Yardain says. “It’ll be fine.”

I don’t listen. I played a key part in organizing our group’s reading, and I can’t shake the feeling that I’m going to mess it up somehow.

I race downstairs, walk to 7-Eleven and buy some spray oil. I find that the weather is unseasonably warm for mid-December. When I get back, Yardain delegates me to the vegetables. I begin chopping up onions, mushrooms and red peppers as group members file in. There are 12 of us in total.

My apartment is small, and soon every chair is accounted for. Three people sit at the kitchen counter, four on the couches and two in desk chairs I stole from bedrooms.

David joins Yardain and I behind the kitchen counter. David is the English major version of a class clown. In class, he openly begins questions with, “So, say I haven’t done the reading…” We all love him, including John, our professor. Actually, I think John loves him most.

David begins making bacon, which he picked out when we went grocery shopping yesterday. He reminds me a bit of Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of “Ulysses.” Both eat pork for breakfast even though they are Jewish. Both are unconquered heroes.

The premise of “Ulysses” is this: Bloom walks around Dublin, Ireland for an entire day. He believes his wife, Molly, is cheating on him at home and refuses to return until late into the night. We plan to mirror Bloom’s progress. We’re going to walk all over Ann Arbor as we read, trying to spend each chapter somewhere similar to where Bloom was in Dublin.

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Photo by Grant Hardy

 

All 18 chapters of “Ulysses” are named after and based on chapters in Homer’s “Odyssey.” “Ulysses” is a modern-day epic.

At some point in the morning, someone begins reading.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air.

The reading progresses smoothly from one person to another. The sound mixes with the sizzling of the bacon and the pouring of coffee. It all feels calming, like a bedtime story.

Some people are better readers than others. One group member, Nick, is particularly fantastic. It seems he was born to read “Ulysses” aloud.

As Nick reads, I pack my backpack. Throughout the day, Bloom keeps with him a bar of lemon soap and a crumpled up letter. I pack smarter, albeit nearly as light: a zip-lock bag of goldfish, a phone charger and a small notebook.

We finish the first two chapters, which are relatively short, and everyone begins to cheer.

“Shut up and read,” David exclaims.

And we do. Someone begins reading the third chapter as we all stand up and put our coats on.

It is time to leave my island behind. I lock the door behind me and feel an ocean of uncertainty ahead of me. Who will I be when I return?

English Professor John Whittier-Ferguson is sitting in his office eating a bagel with cheese.

John is tall, thin and undeniably heroic. He is dressed in a royal blue button-down paired with dark wash jeans.

Every two years, on average, John teaches a course devoted almost entirely to “Ulysses.” In the class, which I took in my Fall 2015 semester, we spent the first five weeks with Joyce’s “Dubliners” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” then dedicated a full nine weeks to “Ulysses.”

At the end of the course, students get together in groups and read “Ulysses” aloud from start to finish. Though optional, the reading stands in place of a final exam. Students who don’t participate take a written final that involves passage identification.

I ask John how the reading is graded.

“Everyone gets an A,” he says. “It’s so much harder than the exam.”

John’s office is a tribute to Joyce. The bookshelves are lined with secondary texts, like “Ulysses Annotated” and a full set of "Finnegans Wake" encyclopedias.

“Some books have these sort of cultish things around them and this is one of them,” John says of “Ulysses.”

He’s not wrong. “Ulysses” takes place on June 16, 1904, a day that has now been dubbed “Bloomsday,” in honor of Leopold Bloom. All over the world, in places from Canada to Croatia, people honor the book by reading it aloud, often in marathon readings like ours.

Bloomsday began in Dublin in 1954. The University’s tradition began 37 years later, in 1991. John was just out of graduate school at Princeton University, and it was his first year teaching “Ulysses.” Three students — Ethan Goodman, Jessamyn Hatcher and David Zaft — floated the idea of a reading instead of a final.

“Like so many great things, it’s student-led and student-originated,” John says, modestly.

John is the type of professor who keeps in touch with his students after they graduate. Every time he mentions a “Ulysses” veteran, he follows their name with what they are doing now. Things like, “He went into the Peace Corps,” or “He’s back in town, applying for an MFA.”

I wonder, hopefully, if I will be one of these students in 10 years.

Proteus: 9:21 a.m.

We don’t want to split up, so all 12 of us crowd into one of my building’s two tiny elevators. The elevator travels two floors down then opens again. A boy stands still for a moment before entering.

“Is the other elevator broken?” he asks, confused as to why there are so many of us.

“Sure,” I tell him.

We reach the first floor and step out, like clowns getting out of a car. David reads as we walk through the Diag. His reading is quick, and it will only get quicker throughout the day. He is the fastest reader out of all of us.

It’s still early enough that the campus is pretty much deserted, and I feel peaceful as we walk. Soon, I’ll be graduating, leaving all of this behind. It feels right that I’m experiencing Ann Arbor, an old place, in a new way.

We end up in Mason Hall, sitting on the tiled floor with our books on our laps as students hurry past us, yawning on their way to their 10 a.m. classes. Now, Yardain is reading. He keeps his voice deep and puts extra stress on every third word.

A wayward freshman approaches our group.

“Are you guys registering?” he asks.

No,” we all chant in unison. He walks away, embarrassed.

As chapter three ends, I run upstairs to turn in a final paper for an English class. I hand it to my GSI, Dory, then tell her I can’t stay for our discussion, because I need to get back to my “Ulysses” reading. She doesn’t mind.

“I’ve heard of that before,” she says. “That is so cool!”

Calling Ethan Goodman, I feel as though I’m about to talk to a famous person. Twenty-five years ago, this man was ambitious enough to convince his English class to read all of “Ulysses” aloud. He now works at an important-sounding New York law firm.

Though John takes no credit for the creation of the reading, Ethan says John’s teaching style played a crucial part.

“The way John ran the class, which was really a collaborative discussion group more than anything else, seemed to naturally lend itself to a capstone that was more than sitting in a room and writing in a blue book,” Ethan says.  

I can stand behind this — John’s classroom does not feel like a place where there is a right answer. Rather than lecture at his students, John helps us to dig deeper into passages that interest us, leading us to unlock key parts of the text that may be difficult to access. A blue book exam does not seem the best way to assess how far a student has come with the text.  

Ethan and his classmates did the reading on half-Bloomsday — so December 16, 1991. At that point, students hadn’t yet begun to travel around Ann Arbor, trying to match Bloom’s path in Dublin.

“Back then it was all in one place,” Ethan tells me.

The things Ethan says about John’s class, “Ulysses” and Ann Arbor sound almost too familiar. It’s as if nothing has changed in all of these intervening years.

I ask Ethan how “Ulysses” has affected him over the years. It feels like I am about to hear my future.

“It seems to reveal itself in various ways depending on where you are in your life,” he says. “When you’re a student … it can be one thing, but later on, when you pick it back up, you’re going to see certain things in a whole different light just because you will have gained some life experience.”

Lestrygonians: 1:10 p.m.

A few chapters later, we’re all starving. In four hours, we trek all over campus. From Mason Hall we go to the cemetery on Observatory, where David sits on a grave and Yardain says, simply, “Don’t do that.” Then, we retrace our steps back to the Student Publications Building, where we all have chairs for the first time in a while.

Now, we’re at a long, Harry Potter-esque table in Pizza House, waiting for our food. It’s a Friday afternoon and the restaurant is predictably empty. Music plays overhead, but it can’t compete with the sound of us reading.

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Photo by Grant Hardy

 

The waitress approaches and seems unflustered by our open books. It’s as if people come in here reading “Ulysses” every day. Honestly, I’m sure she’s seen weirder. We order two large pizzas — one vegetable, for non-carnivores like myself, and one pepperoni.

Bloom is also eating lunch. A Gorgonzola cheese sandwich. An interesting choice for a man who ate pork kidneys for breakfast. My vegetarian pizza makes me feel closer to him. Greaseabloom.

There’s so much in “Ulysses” I’ll never get. Having studied the book for three decades, John recognizes this. He does not expect his students to understand the entire book. Part of the beauty of the marathon reading is that group members all come with their own backgrounds, and we all have certain parts we understand best.

“It’s hard to think of a book that’s harder to read in a college assembly of people, because it’s very hard to do on your own, even with good notes and all the best will in the world,” John says. “It’s one of those things that it really helps to be a part of a group, encouraging everybody together.”

At Pizza House, I sit next to Nick, the one who’s excellent at reading aloud. It turns out Nick has even more secret skills: He is a die-hard Shakespeare fan. Lucky for me, I have been in the market for a Shakespeare fan. Joyce’s references to Shakespeare are nearly constant.

Nick begins to explain a theory about Hamlet that Joyce presents in “Ulysses”. When he finishes, I still don’t really get it, but I’m captivated anyway. Here I am, in Pizza House, reading “Ulysses” aloud and discussing theories on “Hamlet.” This, I think, this is the reason I became an English major.

John has a dream that, he admits, will never be realized. He imagines all of the generations of “Ulysses” marathon-readers will one day all stand in a room together, talking about the book.

In writing this article, I have sort of helped fulfill John’s dream. I keep reaching out to former readers, reminding them that they did this amazing, insane thing and I did it, too. We might be in completely different places in our lives, but we all have one thing in common: an almost unhealthy obsession with Joyce.

I have already talked to Ethan, a member of the first generation of readers. Next, I call Tom McBrien, who is of the most recent generation besides mine and a former Daily Copy Chief. He did the reading in the Winter 2015 semester. Though Tom and I are much closer together in years, his observations about the reading are completely in line with Ethan’s.

Tom gives a description of the reading that leaves me laughing out loud and nodding emphatically, though he can’t see me.

“It was like an English major hazing,” he says, seriously.

Like me, Tom did the reading in his senior year. He says, at the time he did it, the opportunity to wander all over Ann Arbor was particularly special. He knew that his time with these places was coming to an end.

“It’s kind of an emotional thing going to all these different places in Ann Arbor that I’ve been before, but meshing them with this incredible work of literature,” Tom tells me. “It became part of how I see the city.”

Like many of us, Tom’s experience with “Ulysses” has affected the way he sees the world. He says he’s found that “Ulysses” has this way of mirroring life in a way that’s almost spooky.

“There are so many things in it that are unforgettable and these things keep cropping up,” he says. “I don’t know what kind of wizard James Joyce was, but he found the most amazing way to capture so much of life in that book.”

Sirens: 4:32 p.m.

Eight hours in, the rhythm of the book becomes the rhythm of my thoughts. My thoughts are wandering. My wandering thoughts.

“Ulysses,” as a book, has a liveliness to it. The book presents thoughts and ideas that can’t be attributed to any character. It is, at turns, musical or mocking or angry or tired or sad.

“Sirens” does not abide by the laws of narrative, but by the laws of music. It has a prelude. It repeats words just for the sake of sound, and has random interludes everywhere.  

When we reach the prelude of “Sirens,” we are all standing on an Ann Street sidewalk. We gather in a circle and hold our books into the middle like hands in a cheer. We take turns reading single lines. It is windy with a slight chill. The words are a spirit, a possession jumping from person to person.

Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing.

Imperthnthn thnthnthn.

Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.

The thing about these lines is they start to make sense when read aloud. Hearing them, I realize that Joyce heard them, too. That a chapter relying on sound can’t make full sense if read silently.

“It shows me how much Joyce read it aloud in his head,” John says later. “He has a very amazing sense of the spoken word and the rhythm of things.”

I don’t doubt this. Joyce was a lot of things: novelist, poet, lover, father, closet atheist. He was also a singer and a pianist. In all of his works — from his short stories to his novels — there is distant music.

As of the late 1920s, scholars agreed that both Homer’s epics — “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”— were probably the result not of one man’s genius, but of a centuries-long oral tradition. Homer was just the guy who thought to record them.

Joyce wanted to write an odyssey. And he took it one step further than I realized. He wrote a book that needed to be read aloud to be fully understood. He called upon an oral tradition that was wiped out centuries ago. He took Homer’s feat and reversed it.

Circe: 10:53 p.m.

In Greek mythology, Circe is a witch-goddess who likes to transform people into animals. In “The Odyssey,” she turns Odysseus’ men into pigs. Odysseus ends up sleeping with Circe, then staying on her island for a year.

We stay at Yardain’s house for 9 hours — from around 5 p.m. through 2 a.m. We had big plans for the night, but we’re too tired and homesick to go any further right now.

At 11 p.m., we’re sitting in Yardain’s bedroom. The room is attic-like — it’s a huge room, but its sloping ceilings give it coziness. It’s dark outside now, and we’re all feeling lazy.

John always stops by the readings. He usually comes at around 11. He says he almost always comes in the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter — the chapter right before “Circe.”

“I always seem to arrive in Oxen,” John says. “If they ever aren’t there then I’m like ‘Oh my God you’re in big trouble.’ ”

Predictably, we’re finishing “Oxen” when John arrives. I have basically checked out. I’m lying down on Yardain’s bed, and haven’t read in the past hour.

John walks into the room. Suddenly, the air is electric. It’s as if Joyce himself has joined us. He sits down on the floor and reads for a long time. His reading is animated but quick. When he stops, the readers following him give a new effort. We finish “Oxen” and move on to “Circe.”

John’s arrival is something that, I imagine, always reinvigorates students. By 11 p.m., every group has hit a wall. When I ask Tom, he agrees.

“It absolutely kept us going for a few hours even after he had left,” he says.

A recent Microsoft study shows that human attention spans have decreased from 12 seconds to 8 seconds; our attention spans are now less than that of a goldfish.

Our inability to pay attention is inextricably tied to technology: We’re always pausing to answer a text, scroll through Instagram or check our Facebook notifications.

The progression toward fragmentation only makes the “Ulysses” reading more special. Here, we have something that doesn’t pause, doesn’t stop for anything. Sure, we can check our phones, we can eat, we can have conversations. But the reading will continue.

Another “Ulysses” veteran, Jacobsen Woollen, captured this idea much more beautifully than I ever could. After his reading, Jacobsen sent an e-mail to John in which he pointed out how strange it is that we never experience books all at once.

“The experiencing of any book, much less “Ulysses,” continuously from beginning to end is a remarkable thing for my generation,” he wrote.  

When I talk to Tom, he hints at a similar theme. Life doesn’t stop; we aren’t awarded more time just because we stop to check our phones. In this way, the reading reflected life.

“You couldn’t go back to something,” Tom says. “You couldn’t stop and think about something for a while. It kept coming and you just had to hold onto it and keep living it.”

Penelope: 6:49 a.m.

After Circe, we migrate to David’s house. To do so, we have to move all the way across campus, traveling from Kerrytown to South Forest. Like early this morning, the Diag is empty. I am so exhausted that I can barely walk straight. I watch the streetlights, which seem to move while I stand still, and mumble nonsense to Kelli and Yardain.

David’s living room is a place of sleek black leather couches and quesadillas. I fall asleep for a while.

“Ulysses” has two endings. In the first, Bloom finally gets home and climbs into bed with Molly.

Bloom is sleepy, and the book is sleepy too. The narrative is in that before-bed place — when you’re still awake, but so close to sleep that your thoughts become a seemingly random collection of words.

Going to dark bed there was a square round Sinbad the Sailor roc’s auk’s egg in the night of the bed of all the auks of the rocs of Darkinbad the Brightdayler.

I am loopy but, for now, still upright. Eli, a boy with long, floppy, black hair and a deep reading voice, tells a story to Kelli and I.

“In eighth grade, I convinced someone to eat a goldfish at a church fair,” he says, proudly.

I laugh so hard that tears stream from my eyes.

After Ithaca comes Penelope, a chapter from the point of view of Bloom’s wife, Molly. By the time we get to Penelope, we are all impatient to be finished.

The book is also impatient. It’s tired; it wants to be over. For this reason, the Penelope chapter lacks periods — it’s all one big, fast-flowing sentence.

Eli is obsessed with Molly Bloom, a character that is supposed to mirror Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. I don’t blame him. Molly is fascinating. She’s gorgeous, shamelessly sexual and unafraid of anything.

Eli willingly reads page after page of Penelope. Half the group sleeps, but Kelli and I sit by him, listening sleepily.

“You’re great,” I tell Eli, as he turns a page.

“I’m no Penelope,” he replies, grinning.

Everyone has the part of “Ulysses” that they get best. I get Molly. The way she thinks just clicks with me. I ask to be the one to finish reading the book, and no one objects.

I love the end of “Ulysses.” Even though their marriage is dysfunctional in so many ways, Molly recognizes that she did choose Bloom. She had other options, but she picked him. She said yes when he proposed to her.

At the end of the book, Molly remembers saying yes.

I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

I think about how life is hard. And Joyce is hard. And we choose to invest our time and energy into it anyway. And we might be insanely sleep-deprived and loopy as hell, but we did choose this.

I finish reading, and the silence is screaming. There hasn’t been silence in 24 hours, and the lack of sound seems to echo, strangely. No one says anything, for a moment. Then David says, “Get out!”

It feels weird that we’re not somehow celebrating, but I’m too tired to care. I grab my backpack and speed home. It’s 9 a.m. and all I can think about is my bed, warm and waiting for me in my tower.

I arrive home after what feels like years. The apartment is dead quiet and still smells of the bacon David made yesterday.

Joyce believed that getting in bed next to another person is one of the most heroic things someone can do. Joyce’s longer novels — “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake” — both end with a couple in bed together.

I climb into my own bed. Unlike Bloom, I have no Molly to climb in next to. I am not so brave as to go to bed with another person. I’m not yet ready to commit to this greatest of feats.

Maybe going to bed alone is also epic, in a way. I pull my covers over me, close my eyes and dream Joycean dreams.