Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Midnight Meat Train

Twelve days since my last post.  I try to update more frequently than that, but I've been busy prepping for two big upcoming trips.  One begins this Saturday: my girl, our dog, and I are driving to Basilicata (the lower shin of the Italian boot) and hiking from the east coast to the west.  If all goes well, after next week I'll have technically walked across a country.  After that I'm catching a transatlantic to Baltimore so I can be the best man at my best friend's wedding.  Yes, in the words of Benito Mussolini, my dear friend Mike Barron is about to bury the putrid corpse of liberty.  I'm flying in a week before the festivities to take him white-water rafting for his bachelor party.  After that I'll head to my parents' house in Maryland, spend the week catching up with my family, then head back to Baltimore the following Friday for the wedding.

Anyway, I wanted to share this NPR article about 'The Midnight Meat Train', a horrific Clive Barker story from his seminal collection Books of Blood.  It reminded me of the first time I read that one.  I was on the outskirts of Rome, making my evening commute by train.  I read the passage where the narrator realizes that he's alone on a train with the butcher who's been slaughtering people in the subways of New York at night.  At one point I looked up, and realized that not only was it was pitch black outside outside my window, but I was the ONLY PASSENGER in the car.  The word "terrified" does not begin to do it justice.  In fact I sent Clive a Facebook message today thanking him for the most horrific experience of my adult life.

Friday, August 10, 2012

James Joyce: Ulysses

This summer, having found myself with way too much time on my hands, I'm doing something I've been putting off for the last seven years.  I've finally gotten around to reading James Joyce's infamous literary behemoth, Ulysses.

When someone mentions reading Ulysses, it's typically met with a laugh or a groan, because clearly anyone who would willingly dive into that convoluted mess is either insane or a pretentious tool.  Your well-read friends know that it's not only a hallmark of Irish literature, but an amalgam of symbolism that draws on mythology, literature, religion, politics and history in a massive cultural connect-the-dots.  A few of them have tried to read it, but after the first ten pages the incomprehensible stream of consciousness sucked them into a whirlpool.  Since then, they think of it the way most teenagers think of Shakespeare.  But as any Shakespeare fan will tell you, if you approach the text with the right guide, you'll discover some of the best stuff in the English language.

My guide has been The New Bloomsday Book* by Harry Blamires.  If you're the least bit interested in tackling Ulysses, I can't recommend this one enough.  For each chapter, Blamires lays the scene and gives a brief summary of the action.  This alone will make your reading that much more enjoyable, as the events in the book are impossible to decipher due to the erratic narration.  Also, as they appear, he explains the references and allusions to Homer, the Bible, Shakespeare, and Irish politics.  (Because after all, you aren't James Joyce.  You are a dumbass.)

I think one of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to read Ulysses is getting hung up on the symbolism.  I had a college professor who would spend entire classes glossing over certain paragraphs that summarized passages from the Book of Psalms, which (holy shit!) contained a number of words that indicated the verse.  By the end of the course he'd turned me off of Joyce for years.  I was convinced that he epitomized not only everything wrong with academia, but with literary fiction in general.  

Now, I'm not saying that you should discount the symbolism.  After all, it's what makes reading the book such an enriching experience.  All I'm saying is that if you fret over every last punctuation mark, you'll only end up driving yourself crazy.  Instead, follow along with Blamires, and just let the text wash over you.  Some of the nuances will sink in, and some won't.  But when they do, my God are they ever powerful.  In the first chapter, Stephan Dedalus has a conversation with an English visitor called Haines.  At one point, Haines pulls a cigarette from a case encrusted with a shiny green emerald.  In this brief moment, Stephen is reminded that Ireland is kept as a pretty ornament, tucked away in England's pocket.  How fucking slick is that?

Ulysses might be a challenge, but is it worth it?  I'm currently a third of the way through, and so far I'd say yes.  At the very least it'll give you the back story behind the names of your favorite Irish pubs.

*I borrowed a copy from my friend Melissa four years ago, right before I fled the country.  This September I'm flying back for a week so I can go to my best friend's wedding.  She'll most likely be there as well, so it'll be a good time to hand it back over.  I'm not even sure if she still knows I have it.