100 Years Later, What Have We Learned From James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’?

dubliners-joyce1Twelve years ago, I inadvertently began a literary ritual that I’ve kept alive to this day. It was late in the first term of my freshman year of college, and I’d been assigned to lead a discussion on James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the devastating final story in his collection Dubliners. Never having read it, I was unaware of the symbolic importance of snow in the story. It happened to be the first snowfall of the year, and by the time I reached the book’s end, my romantic, teenaged soul swooned along with Gabriel’s, as he heard “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” So, as embarrassing as it is to admit, I now re-read “The Dead” on the first snowfall of every year.

It was noted this June, on and near Bloomsday — the yearly celebration of James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses — that 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Dubliners, his first and only collection of short stories. (And, I was reminded again by Paul Murray’s poignant remembrance in The Paris Review.) If last year’s great literary centennial was for Proust’s Swann’s Way, 2014 belongs to Dubliners. With this in mind, I’m wondering what Dubliners has taught us over the last century and what we might have left to learn.

Joyce wrote Dubliners in order to reflect for the people of that city the “significance of trivial things.” Written in a style of “scrupulous meanness,” as Joyce put it, the book takes a hard look at, or rather holds up a polished mirror to, the paralysis of city life lived under the strict eye of the church. The book treats the city as an organism, albeit a dead or dying one, which is why Joyce organized it in evolving sections: Childhood, Adolescence, Maturity, and Public Life. The city’s ongoing death, implied strongly by the title of the final story, partly explains why Joyce wrote much of the book in exile. He later admitted: “[My] intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis.” As much as someone might snicker while reading this, it’s important to remember that Joyce was in his early 20s when he wrote much of Dubliners. This makes me think that albums like Mobb Deep’s The Infamous or the Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die are much closer in spirit to what Joyce was doing than any recent novel.

It’s hard to imagine now that Joyce found it difficult to publish the book, not because potential houses found it aesthetically confusing or objectionable (although some did), but because they were worried about libel suits and commercial viability. As he tells us in “A Curious History”, publishers in both London and Dublin asked Joyce to “change everywhere through the book the names of restaurants, cake-shops, railway stations, public-houses, laundries, bars, and other places of business.” Joyce, of course, refused to change anything about the book that would alter its verisimilitude or social resonance. In 2014, it’s hard to imagine “places of business” caring about what is published in any work of fiction, but if they did, it would most likely be only to highlight their brands. I guess what I mean to say is that contemporary realism, if it is realism in any meaningful sense, is often banal and harmless, so much so that when compared to Dubliners we should wonder whether we’re doing it wrong.

And when it comes to realism, Dubliners, more than even Chekhov’s short fiction, is the model we routinely fail to live up to. The secular “epiphanies” that Joyce strikes in each of the stories were meant at the time to replace the revelations of Christianity. Now, “epiphany” has become a workshop term bandied about to differentiate “quality” fiction from its messy counterpart. Each story, we’re told, should have one. Though we don’t seem to know why.

Even worse, Joyce’s startling “free indirect style,” where the narration picks up the qualities of its characters as it flows, has been rebranded “indirect discourse.” (When Joyce writes, “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet,” we know that she wasn’t; it’s just something she’d say.) Unwitting MFA students appear to believe the concept was invented by James Wood in How Fiction Works. And now that Wood has become the arbiter of American literary form, the originality of Joyce’s technique has been gentrified. We’re all Joyce now.

I don’t want to come across as a curmudgeon: all writers will fail, routinely, to live up to Dubliners. But there are specks of light on the horizon. Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, published this month, is the first novel I’ve read in ages that takes New York as seriously — with as much fortified realism — as Dubliners takes Dublin. And based on Nell Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper, I’m starting to believe in an altogether new cosmopolitan and idiomatic realism. These books, on the surface, look nothing like Dubliners, but, in spirit, they show that Joyce’s book still lives 100 years on.