There is an abundance of irony in “Ulysses.” Its notorious difficulty is a cause for at least two such points of irony:
The plot is remarkably simple. A university student and middle-aged advertising salesman go about their business on a pleasant summer’s day in Dublin at the turn of the 20th century. Many unremarkable things happen; there’s a funeral, a parade, a lecture; the salesman meets a young girl by the seaside, their encounter leading to a scene that somehow gets the novel banned in the United States for over a decade; the salesman’s wife has an affair; the principals have a surreal encounter in a brothel — and then everybody goes home. While it’s often difficult to figure out what exactly is happening in “Ulysses,” the truth is that there really isn’t that much that actually does happen.
The most infamous episodes are actually more accessible than most of the novel. During our junior year in high school, my classmates and I were assigned to read Melville’s “Billy Budd.” This being the 1970s, a decade of outspokenness (sometimes appropriate, many times not), we made our displeasure known to our teacher, who brushed off our complaining with an admonition — “you think Melville’s tough, that’s nothing compared to ‘Ulysses.’ It ends with sentences ten pages long!” (I get the feeling our teacher was assigned Joyce’s novel in college, and didn’t enjoy the experience.) She was referring to the concluding episode Molly Bloom’s soliloquy eight ginormous strings of associated words that can only by the largest stretch of imagination be considered sentences requiring over two hours to recite in that Naxos audiobooks I keep raving about. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) This and the episode in the brothel are the two scenes I’ve seen most often cited to support the argument that “Ulysses” is difficult to the point of incomprehensibility. However, I find that once you accept that the surreal environment at the brothel, and learn to focus on Molly’s phrases rather than get hung up on her (lack of) punctuation — both scenes are very readable, certainly more so than the third episode, where I find that trying to follow Stephen Dedalus’ rambling thoughts is like a drunk man trying to read hieroglyphics while riding a motorcycle.