By Spencer Pate
James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is the entire human experience encapsulated in one eighteen-hour period in Ireland. How could a twenty-first century novel possibly do the same? Our world is more fragmented, chaotic, and complex than the one in which Joyce lived. Other twentieth century writers who tried to do what James Joyce accomplished have almost invariably failed (albeit often in a spectacular fashion) for this reason: There is no way a single novel could embrace the entire range of life in our globalized world the way Joyce did with Ulysses. Most of these ambitious attempts such as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest are simply too overstuffed with information and characters to be conventionally readable. While other works like David Mitchell’s brilliant Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas may be very fine examinations of the hyper-connected era in which we live, they cover few if any of the grand themes addressed by Joyce. Instead, we must look back in order to go forward. James Joyce said in a letter to a friend, “If I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” Here we find the best advice for someone my age that may one day write the greatest novel of the twenty-first century: Look to the specific, not the global.
A truly great work of this century must reject the maximalist approach of the postmodern novelists and get rid of modern literature’s comforting, consoling insistence on irony, which the writer China Miéville has called “one of the great middlebrow palliatives of late modernity.” A great novel takes itself, and its readers, seriously. In terms of literary innovations, writers my age should not be afraid to experiment with structure or style. However, I believe these experimental tendencies should be kept subtle so they enhance the narrative instead of taking its place. Writers need to avoid the predominant styles in literature today and study the works of the true prose masters, like Dickens, Conrad, or Cormac McCarthy. Their rich, descriptive styles never go out of fashion.
Furthermore, fabulation and certain aspects of speculative fiction can be powerful tools in a writer’s repertoire. Of these experimental, fabulist trends in modern literature, the finest examples I know are the stories of Kelly Link, an author who would be an excellent role model for any young writer. Her masterful stories “The Girl Detective,” “The Hortlak,” “Stone Animals,” “Magic for Beginners,” and “Lull” range from sophisticated deconstructions of gender relations to surreal, deceptively simple fantasy stories, from intricate Russian nesting dolls of stories to examinations of the role narratives play in our society. Link’s stories do not attempt to embrace all of society, but they still manage to find universal themes in the specific. Just as Faulkner made his great ascent to the pinnacle of modernism after reading and analyzing Ulysses, I suspect that a writer my age today may create a genuinely great work through the influence of Kelly Link.
Lastly, a writer my age must be socially and politically conscious and focus on the theme of the individual in relation to the culture in which he or she lives. In both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, Joyce examined characters who were symbolically both citizens and exiles. While they are both citizens of Ireland, Stephen Dedalus is an exile because of his artistic ambitions, and Leopold Bloom is an exile because he is Jewish. They are exceedingly different people Stephen is intellectual and aloof and Leopold is earthy and humane but it is by recognizing their common humanity that they are redeemed. Joyce also addressed issues of social class in his novels and short stories by examining Ireland’s social, moral, and intellectual “paralysis.” Ultimately, it is his characters’ so-called “epiphanies” that break them out of this paralysis. This should be the goal of any socially conscious writer: to engage in a dialogue with society in the hopes of making it better.
In order to be considered as a candidate for the “greatest writer of the twenty-first century,” a writer my age would need to create his or her own distinctive style through rejecting postmodernism, studying the work of older writers, and making use of experimental techniques introduced by the likes of Joyce and Faulkner. Secondly, he or she would need to read in a wide variety of genres and not hesitate to make use of fantasy or speculative fiction elements in their work. Finally, a writer would have to be passionate about examining society and culture in order for his or her fiction to be truly great and relevant. A writer my age must take Joyce’s advice to heart and look for the universal in the specific and discover endless possibility in the mundane.
By Spencer Pate
Hamilton High School
1165 Eaton Avenue
Hamilton, Ohio, 45013