Monday, April 19, 2010
A Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist
It was highly appropriate that the narrator would ask these questions near the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man because by then I was also wondering if excrement counted as art, or at the very least could pass for it. Of course, we all know that excrement can, and often does pass for art. Mr. Joyce's novel did absolutely nothing for me. I read the words of the novel and thought I should be having a profound sense of something; instead I felt nothing.
A Portrait is a bildungsroman, a coming of age story about a boy as he transitions into becoming a man (an artist, if you will). It follows five episodes in Stephen Dedalus's life; the first one when he's in elementary school and the last one about when he's in college. In between we see him transition from being a confused and scared little boy, to rebellious prostitute visiting sinner, to repentant Catholic, to areligious cynic. However, the novel is not written in the narrative form with which contemporary readers are more familiar. Instead, it's written a distorting stream-of-consciousness-not-always-linear writing style that is abrupt and not always easy to follow. Maybe that's what makes Joyce the "father of the modern" novel. It also might make the novel pretentious (and by "might," I mean "more likely than not").
I have two complaints about this book. 1) I did not feel like anything happened the entire novel. Even within the episodic chapters, I did not feel that very much happened. I never felt connected to Dedalus. This is to say, I didn't feel like this novel had a story (and for those post-modern snots out there, I do insist on a having a story in my novels). 2) I couldn't relate with Dedalus' big revelations. First Joyce gives us a massive sermon in which Dedalus, the sinner, fears the burning flames of hell. Then, later, we get an extended aesthetic discussion about the nature of art. Neither offered any new insights to their respective discourses. Instead, they're presented as being parts of a growing Dedalus. Maybe I'm too jaded with personal revelations, but these episodes (and the episodes generally) reminded me of the trite personal epiphanies of high schoolers who have decided to open themselves up to one another, and, you know, have deep thoughts, and stuff. It felt like these "deep thoughts" were important, not because of their merit, but because Dedalus was having them. Sorry, Stephen, I don't give a shit. (that's right another reference to poop). And in case you're wondering why I re-titled Mr. Joyce's book, it's because I feel like this was the portrait of a young man, portraying himself as an artist.
This is the second James Joyce novel that I've tried to read (the first one was The Dubliners). If there is a James Joyce fan out there, would you please explain to me why he matters? I don't get it, and I genuinely want to. I just feel like this is another academic, over-hyped writer to be referenced only to other "enlightened" types, and only at elite parties where everyone is drinking something out of a martini glass and smoking foreign cigarettes. Someone take me off my soapbox.
Posted by G.R.R. Fotley at 10:23 PM