James Joyce, “Ulysses” (1922)

ulyssesChapter and line numbers from the Gabler edition.

The literary idea of Ulysses is represented in microcosm by its fourteenth chapter, unofficially titled “Oxen of the Sun.” Whatever you think of this chapter — whether you find it impressive, pretentious, exhilarating, intimidating, boring, liberating, or unreadable — is likely to be your opinion of the novel as a whole. For that reason, we may also start there. Continue reading

Jan Kerouac, “Baby Driver” (1981)


‘Well, Dean,’ said my aunt, ‘I hope you’ll be able to take care of your new baby that’s coming and stay married this time.’
‘Yes, yass, yes.’
‘You can’t go over the country having babies like that. Those poor little things’ll grow up helpless. You’ve got to offer them a chance to live.’ He looked at his feet and nodded.”

from On the Road (Kerouac, I/227-228)

Kerouac wrote, “With one illegitimate child in the West somewhere, Dean then had four little ones and not a cent,” (I/223) but not once, in any of his books, did he mention his own daughter. But he had one. Her name was Jan, and she wrote two novels. Continue reading

Philip K. Dick, “A Scanner Darkly” (1977)


(Conclusion. Continued from part 1.)

Dick felt insecure about being a writer of genre fiction, however successful. In an introduction to a collection of his short stories (published in 1980), he advised readers to “bear in mind that most were written when SF was so looked down upon that it virtually was not there, in the eyes of all America. This was not funny, the derision felt toward SF writers. It made our lives wretched…really cruel abuse was inflicted on us.” The abuse was largely self-inflicted. When meeting new people in the late 1950s, especially if they had real or imagined literary connections, Dick would deliberately downplay his science fiction writing, instead emphasizing his attempts at “mainstream” novels with more conventional realistic plots, which very few people ever read. Even in 1981, he felt that his failure in this area was “the tragedy…of my creative life.”

But he needn’t have worried. A Scanner Darkly was his literary masterwork, in which the line between realism and science fiction thinned out into nonexistence. In fact, the stylistic conventions of science fiction writing are deliberately used to erode that line, from the very first page. Continue reading

Philip K. Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968)

letmetellyou“Let me tell you about my mother.”

I wrote earlier that every culture revolves around a certain central idea, which is best expressed in a single word, thus allowing one to see that culture in sharp focus. I gave several examples, with the notable omission of American culture. Maybe now we can fill in this missing piece. The theme of American culture is destruction. Continue reading

Vladimir Nabokov, “The Gift” (1938)


An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.”

1884 grammar textbook quoted in the epigraph (11)

The epigraph is not a fabrication.”

Nabokov’s foreword to the English edition (9)

(Continued from part 2.)

Nabokov despised clichés, but his life easily fits them. The Gift, his penultimate novel in Russian (the last being Other Shores), is proof that money does not buy happiness. It was written in obscurity, in Berlin, when Nabokov roomed in boarding-houses and made a living as an English tutor. The same drab life is shared by the protagonist of The Gift, and yet he is remarkably free from it. His inner world offers him an escape. In Pale Fire, a quarter-century later, it will lead only to a more restrictive prison. Continue reading