Thursday, May 6, 2010


It took me a while to warm up to short fiction. Really, I never realized how powerful and well crafted good short story were until I read them in collections. In a great collection, each story stands out on its own and can be read alone, but when read as part of a whole becomes a piece in a larger narrative. In James Joyce's Dubliners the stories are of everyday people - children, men, women, families - but each illustrates another corner of the city until, by the end, you have a full and working illustration of Dublin. The streetscapes are crisp, the clothing and accents and hairstyles are meticulously detailed and you can walk around in your mind, enjoying the view.

My first encounter with Joyce was "Araby," the third story in the collection. The main character, a young boy, is unnamed, but desperately wants to go to Araby, a fair (like a world's fair, by the description, but Joyce isn't specific), which he told the girl down the street he was going to see. Of course, he has a complete and utter crush on this girl - the older sister of one of his friends - and he is desperate to impress her. Joyce doesn't have to say any of that though, because the emotions he evokes when describing the boy's excitement about the fair say it all.

Most of the story is about the boy's anticipation for the fair. Joyce builds up the grey little world the boy usually inhabits, subtly suggesting that Araby has the power to change this. The boy spends an afternoon anxiously awaiting his uncle (with whom he lives) who has promised to take him to Araby. Finally, finally, they head out. After a painstakingly detailed commute - details always stand out when a trip feels painfully slow - they arrive.

Joyce isn't the master of the epiphany for nothing. The boy's hopes are so high that they can't help but fall, which they do. Or, rather, they crash around him in brightly coloured shards that turn out to be backed with grey: The people working at this fair have an accent like his; their costumes aren't convincing; the backdrops are unconvincing. In short, the illusion is exposed as pure artifice, and just like that the boy grows up a little.

Many of Joyce's stories are like this. Their structure is pretty classic in its story arc, but it works again and again because Joyce's character are vividly distinct. And they move around. Joyce's stories don't take place in static locations; his characters walk around, spend time in the streets, visit cafes and bars and generally get out into the city. In many ways, Dubliners is a historical walking tour of the city, led by a well-known local who can not only show you the sights, but introduce you to the two men arguing on the street corner and the young boy playing in the gutter.

In that way, it's also a tour of life, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. Joyce captures a lot of unnervingly familiar emotions and even events in his stories - private and personal conversations and moments of realization that you never told anyone about, yet everyone can relate to. As much as Dubliners proves that Joyce knows his city, it illustrates (through its very title) that he is also keenly familiar with its inhabitants. The people we writes about are both deeply rooted in where they're from (and products of that environment) and universal. Meeting Joyce's characters is unsettling in the best way and the tour of their lives and city may not always be a cheerful one, but it is one you won't forget in a hurry.

by James Joyce
First published in 1914 (cover image shown from Penguin edition)

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