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The House of Ulysses by Julián Ríos
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's review
May 16, 13

bookshelves: ireland
Read in January, 2011

In "The House of Ulysses," translated by Nick Caistor (Dalkey Archive: 280 pp., $14.95 paper), Spanish novelist Julián Ríos offers a guide that endeavors to entertain rather than educate. In an interview published in the literary magazine Context, he describes "The House of Ulysses" as "a fiction-essay or kind of meta-novel."

Ríos' main character, referred to as the Cicerone, a guide, leads a group of visitors through the book's 18 chambers, one for each chapter of "Ulysses." Dressed "in rigorous black with a purple polka-dot bow-tie, long-legged and pallid, white streaks in chestnut hair smoothed back with brilliantine, a blind man's glasses, a straggly mustache," the Cicerone is a stand-in for Joyce himself: part carnival barker, part scholar.

Other characters include the portly professor Ludwig Jones, an "Orsonwellian Falstaff about to burst the seams of his lizard-green tweed suit" and a man with a Macintosh computer, a play on one of "Ulysses' " most enduring mysteries — a character who shows up in various scenes and is identified only as "the man in the Macintosh." The group is rounded out by a trio of readers: a mature fellow named Ananias, a young woman named Babel or Belle with "laughing black eyes" who affects a "Ulysses Museum" T-shirt, and a fusty old Critic. Ríos' readers may recognize these characters from his postmodernist mega-work, "Larva: A Mid-Summer Night's Babel." But in "The House of Ulysses," the readers are addressed simply as A, B and C.

A typical "room" includes a brief summary of the corresponding chapter in "Ulysses" by the Cicerone, some scholarship from the Professor, the schema that Joyce provided early critics courtesy of the man with the Macintosh, and some playful punning from the troika of readers. Then the Cicerone proceeds through "passageways" that consist of short, discursive reflections on various aspects of the novel.

"The House of Ulysses," though rigidly structured, has no plot. The characters, such as they are, serve as devices to animate an extended conversation about the book in a way that captures the spirit of Joyce's jouissance, introduces the reader to rudimentary background information necessary for deciphering the novel (Homer's "Odyssey," for instance, or Shakespeare's "Hamlet") and engages in considerable wordplay. Here's an early exchange regarding Stephen Dedalus in Chapter 3, the point where many readers move on:

Professor Jones was close to roaring. What's in a name? LEOpold is feline, just as Stephen is canine. "Dogsbody," Mulligan calls him.

It also means servile, said C.

A vile sir? asked B.

Vile is evil as dog is God. The body of God: Godsbody? asked A.

The result is a work of criticism, albeit in disguise, that succeeds in making "Ulysses" immediate to readers familiar with the book and accessible to those reading it for the first time. "It is an easy house to run," Ríos writes, and a fun house too, and I strongly recommend it to those unable to finish "Ulysses."

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05/16/2013 marked as: read

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