Usher Lee O’Pegg
The Last Novel of James Joyce
Reviewed by P. Daniel Tree
Since being found behind a crate of whiskey bottles in a Dublin tavern in 2005, Usher Lee O’Pegg, the final novel by the late, great James Joyce, remains one of the most influential and most controversial works of the 20th century.
The controversy comes from a variety of elements. One is its rather esoteric nature, since the common rabble who are used to such pop culture rubbish as comic books, science fiction, mystery novels, “rock ’n’ roll,” jazz, talkies, and other dispensable media that we in academia can see to be imbecilic, would rather sit in their own waste watching The Simpsons then pick up a copy of any book, but I digress. The other reason is the fact that the copy of the book, a weighty hard cover tome, fell off a shelf and killed the critic Harold Bloom.
However, I am getting off subject, and which is its esoteric nature, which makes the book enjoyable only to an academic with knowledge of Modernism, post-modernism, post-post-modernism, neo-post-modernism, and post-neo-post-modernism. The opinions and enjoyment of others without these qualifications are, of course, completely invalid.
One of the reasons for its difficulty is that the book is told from forty-seven different points of view. Aside from Usher himself, these include: Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, a street vender, a drunken transient, a dog, a cat, and a lamppost.
The other reason is that Joyce takes his experimentation with language farther then even Finnegans Wake. The book begins with the sentence: “Usher smedged the kizmar.” While this quotation is brilliantly tragicomic, sums up the theme of the book, and parodies the Kabbala, it might strike some as rather off-putting. The book goes on to say: “The kizmar smedged back. Usher brokkkened up and down. Bangily, Usher overhopped the toaster-toaster and bainshed the bainsheded.” The chapter then follows him out into the streets of Dublin where he receives the first epiphany of the book: “Kizmar was general over Ireland. Bainshed it! Bainshed it! It brokkkened back and forth as it floated olly-a-loop in the air. My life is the banshed kizmar Usher arced himself. Kizmar smedged kizmar. Malatose in the fridge of life's dying death dead. Why mikk? Kingqueen eating jobby jobs on groan. Boiling, boil to kizmar.”
The careful reader will note that Joyce is satirizing the politics of 1940’s Ireland. Notice the irony in the line: “Kizmar smedged kizmar.” The reader knows that Kizmar cannot smedge kizmar, yet Joyce uses this phrase to bring up the question: “Why mikk?” Why mikk? Why do we eat or drive our cars or vote? Why do we do all the things we do? Why, indeed.
From here, the plot unfolds into a tragicomic romp across Dublin and later Paris. The events in the book are often comical allowing readers who inappropriately derive pleasure from the story itself to enjoy the book. As any erudite reader knows, true pleasure comes not from the story or even from dissecting symbols and grafting their own opinions onto the work, but from the acknowledgement one gets for publishing critical analysis of the work.
Take the following passage: “The last fotnull was obecking in the extreme. From the buvkies raf and veer davruugal bethhell tolled anseesinglee while all around the gruumy beestings lloled the omnious warning of a gunship muggled dumbs punctuated vi dawhallo cooming of zeices of awdalence. Davegging placs of gunder and dee dazzling plashess ug nightwing glitch lit up dehastlee queen testified that the ertellary ug kheven gadddent its sibunagjural bomp to the haweady kroozum sprigiggle.”
Now of course to me this completely glear…queer…cough-cough…clear. Joyce is using the bethhells as a symbol of existential angst felt by the center of consciousness, who is, of course, the before mention lamppost. However, would Joyce’s subtle and subversive characterization of the lamppost be enjoyed by just anyone? I think not.
Who else but Joyce and, of course, myself and possibly Harold Bloom had he lived to read it, can truly appreciate this passage? While there are those that claim of all things that Joyce considered himself a populist, he was not, of course, because no great writer could be. There are others who find the book to be, that most reprehensible of literary values, entertaining.
Joyce is too great a writer to ever dream of writing an entertaining novel. Instead, he constructed a deconstructionalist novel that recontextualizes the essential context of the text of the novel itself. Take for example, the dialogue below:
Logo, zez eye. Cow har oooh blowing. Did you see datvludlee jemmkneekeep near dove my I goutdith kisgush.
Poot’s duck. Zez Go. Goooz deyold palcocks you were gawking doo.
BoldRoy, zez eye, wazen devorse. Hyym on two binds knotuu give datbelyow enkarge for cubducking deforodare with gis plooms and ladders.
We know that Logo is similar to Logos, Greek for “Word.” This is an obvious reference to the first verse of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word is God.”
But the novel does not start with the word, rather it starts with Usher smedging a kizmar. Here is the brilliance of Joyce. He places the act of smedging in a holy context. He is saying that smedging should not be for kizmars alone, but also for all men and women and lampposts. This theme is carried through to the end. In the meanwhile, we are treated the various misadventures of the forty-seven characters. We see the final fate of Leopold Bloom: killed by a copy of The Complete Swift fell off a bookshelf and onto his head. This, of course, is symbolic of the writer’s struggle with defining himself by attempting to build upon the literature of the past. It is not, as some have claimed, meant to be humorous. Molly Bloom dies in the same way only with a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield, instead of Swift’s tome. Stephen Dedalus gets drunk and kills himself taking a dive off the Martello Tower in an attempt to fly. The lamppost dies, in a heart-wrenching scene, when a pair of workers for the city removes him. At the end, only Usher O’Pegg survives. He returns to his home and climbs into bed. The novel ends with it’s final, haunting line:
“The kizmar was too tired to smedge anymore.”
(Entry by Matthew A. Ilseman)