|The Cure For Cage|
Turning to Ulysses, nearly a century of scholarly oystrygods gaggin fishygods and several decades of near-universal (dare I say 'kneejerk'? Yes, I dare) acclaim have succeeded in obscuring one of the central facts of this multifaceted book: it's a comic novel, a funny book, an outrageous read, a rip-roaring, rollicking Irish circus of a literary production conceived and executed by an artist who makes madman John Cage look like a smoking-jacketed mandarin paring his Flaubertian fingernails. Ulysses is also very serious, of course, as all the best funny books are, but if we allow the morbidly obese library of scholarly commentary--social historical, deconstructional, narratological, scatological, Farxical-Marxical, tragical-weepsicle, Lacanical-Freudical, Polonian-Hamletical--to crush out the comedy like a puritanical winepress, we will be left only with the dull dregs, a philosophical fiction Derrida or Dennett might have done (or, much more likely if less alliteratively, Jean-Paul Sartre). Ulysses is meant to be laughed with, laughed at. Read it to ridicule it, if that fits your fancy. The point is to read it--to read it voluntarily, and to read it publicly. Read Ulysses in bed with the windows wide open; read it in bars, at bathhouses and boathouses, coffee houses and funeral homes; read it at McDonalds and Jack in the Box; read it for 99 cents at Wendy's and phallicly at Subway. Read it on subways and buses, in the back of Travis Bickle's taxicab, on planes and trains and the stained backseats of automobiles. Read it aloud while strolling through the Amsterdam red light district. Read it at Jones Beach and Coney Island and Malibu and Sandymount Strand. Read it in your cubicle at work when you should be preparing a Powerpoint presentation. Read it on ferris wheels and rollercoasters and carousels and teacup rides. Read it on a rickshaw if you're feeling orientalist; read it in a public men's room between solicitous interruptions (and if you're reading it in a London loo during the 1950s, say hello to John Gielgud for me). Read it one-handed while masturbating to the photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading it in a public playground. (But don't read it while masturbating near a public playground; that would be too, too Nabokovian.) Read it everywhere and as often as possible and in all possible positions. If Ulysses is permitted to become a book read only in classrooms under professorial duress, it will already have died.
It is entirely appropriate that the widely-acclaimed 'greatest novel of the 20th century' is a comic novel, for the European novel is a fundamentally comic form. Whether we date its origin to Petronian Rome or Cervantean Spain, to the Satyricon or the Quixote, the novel is conceived by the spirit of comedy rolling over the ocean of prose. Swift, Sterne, Fielding, Diderot and Voltaire descend from Cervantes and pass his influence on to Dickens, Twain and Carroll, who keep it alive during the age of the Dowdy Dowager that it might burst forth more beautifully at the long 'moment' of Modernism: Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Woolf, Beckett, Bulgakov, Nabokov, N. West, F. O'Brien, Calvino, Kundera, Pynchon, Burgess, Rushdie, Heller, Amis pere et fils, Gaddis, Grass, Gass, Barth, Barthelme, P. Roth, Garcia Marquez, D. F. Wallace, and on, and on, and on. Taking the longest view, it's possible to see the Victorian novel of 'high seriousness' (the long and often tedious line that stretches humourlessly from Richardson through Lawrence) as a historical aberration resulting from the puritanism of a rising middle class. A novel shouldn't frown disapprovingly at us like an antiquated nanny; it should throw its head back and laugh--or at least wickedly grin.
Ancient prejudice aside, part of the reason for the continuing tendency to privilege 'serious' over 'comic' novels might lie in the fact that comedy can be uniquely disturbing. Tragedy we can handle (Aristotle taught us how), but comic ideas insinuate their way into our minds while our mouths are wide with laughter. Comedy, at its highest and best, can unsettle us more profoundly than tragedy because comedy's disruptions are more surprising. Whenever we think a great comic novel is standing us on solid ground, reaffirming our values and confirming our right-thinking ways, it's time for the author to appear in magician's garb and pull the rug from under our feet so we find ourselves like Wile E. Coyote shuffling above the void. This is the classic Nabokovian trick, but Melville performed it a century earlier and Cervantes a quarter-millennium before that. So perhaps we should call it 'the classic novelistic trick,' or more simply, the rhetoric of fiction. Speaking generally, comedy may represent an ultimate horizon of human creativity: comedy can unleash its derisive hailstones upon anything, but only comedy can deflate comedy.