Odysseus never travels through the Wandering Rocks in The Odyssey. Given the choice between the rocks, which pose such hazards that not even birds can make it out the other side, Odysseus opts to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis instead. Joyce, however, demarcates the first half of his book from the second with the Wandering Rocks episode. What gives? And what's with all these characters? A guy breaks out all sorts of addenda and summarizing notes to get through Stephen's absurdly complicated Shakespeare theory, ends up learning a great deal about Stephen in the process, and now suddenly the overriding question on my mind is "Who the hell is Cashel Boyle O'Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell?" And is that even one person or does Joyce just not care about commas?
Comprising 18 vignettes and a coda, the Wandering Rocks chapter shatters the narrative of Stephen and Leopold to follow numerous other characters, some of whom we know already (either from this novel or Joyce's other work), others who just sort of pop up. Each wanders the streets of Dublin as the cavalcade containing the Earl of Dudley, his wife and several other members of the nobility works its way through town. With 19 strands in just over 30 pages, Joyce does not give himself much room to develop any one story, and each mini-episode ends just as a narrative seems to be forming.
There's an almost arbitrary selection to what he puts on paper: some characters get to be alone in their thoughts, receiving as much care for their observation as Stephen and Bloom have gotten. Others only seem to shuffle between one location and another, chatting about banalities before the scene shifts to another character. It's disorienting, and even though Joyce backs off the overwhelming prose a bit and makes sure to actually use names most of the time instead of his splintered, dangling pronouns, navigating the labyrinth of his Altmanesque view of Dublin can be as tricky as following Stephen's logic in his theorizing.
But therein lies the brilliance of this episode. Odysseus did not take the path to the Wandering Rocks because he got a glimpse of how insurmountable it would be. Joyce, whose prose throughout has always given the indication he could guess the exact moment a reader was about to revolt and track the blind son of a bitch down and beat him to death, pulls back to make a point. He's dived so deep into two characters that we not only know what and how they think, we come to think that way too in order to make sense of it all. After finding the personal resonance underneath Stephen's arch intellectualism, there's a sense of victory over this book. "Aha, now I've got it."
That's precisely the moment Joyce rips the rug from underneath you and shows the whole city, as if to say, "Think you've had it rough? You've only had to figure out two people. Two. On a planet with six billion people." Just as Odysseus got a glimpse of the path not taken, so too does the Wandering Rocks episode show what Ulysses might have been like if he'd focused on others. Stephen and Bloom feel important because Joyce assigned importance to them by making them protagonists. But he has also belabored their banality, their ordinariness, throughout. Even Stephen, philosophical polyglot aesthete that he is, is not any truly titanic figure. By splitting up the narrative 19 ways in 30 pages, Joyce proves his point: each episode is so frustrating because it ends as it begins. I should have been thinking "Jaysus, Jimmy, get back to the novel, please," but instead I kept thinking, "But what happened to Paddy Jr.? Where's Boylan going before meeting Molly?"
I get the feeling Joyce had a ball with this chapter, as he intentionally makes everything seem important and foreboding. Those sandwich-board men return with their mysterious "H.E.L.Y.S." signs. When those first popped up, I kept wondering if that was some sly take on "Hellas," meaning Greece (this being based on Homer 'n all) or maybe even the French "Hélas, meaning "Alas," the perfect word for the sense of doom hanging over Bloom's Dublin. He gets at that gloom here, as the two dominant images of the chapter, and the book-ending ones, are of the Church and England. Father Conmee, who implanted fears of hell in Stephen as a lad, now seems directionless and disaffected, lazily blessing a young couple he catches behind a hedgerow. But still he thinks about missionary work and other religious matters, showing how even a disillusioned priest is trapped by his own order. The English, of course, are represented by the earl making his way through town, forcing these people to stop and salute a person speeding by them so quickly that, as we can see at the end, they all melt into a blur.
But even with all these asides, false starts and half-interpolations, Joyce still makes Stephen and Bloom the dominant focus. They appear in several of the vignettes and even interact with people, but Joyce does not make them the dominant focus. Stephen chats with his voice teacher in Italian, thus structuring the conversation around the immigrant's perception, and the "camera" (this is a blatantly cinematic episode) follows the teacher when they part. Bloom peruses a bookstore, but most of the imagery concerns the boorish owner who phlegmatically coughs and spits about the place.
Joyce places them in the background so other characters can interpret them instead of feeding us Bloom's and Stephen's subjective appraisals of each situation. Mulligan speaks of Stephen with a friend, who thinks Dedalus must be half-mad. Mulligan comments that Stephen's religious upbringing instilled too many thoughts of hell to make a poet of the lad. The loathsome Lenehan once more brags about fondling Molly, while others react to Leo's generous donation to Dignam's orphaned children by chuckling at the "irony" of a generous Jew. We at last see some of the leads' fears put into words: Mulligan really is condescending to Stephen's talent (his barbs all the more piercing because he clearly knows the boy), while Bloom's colleagues really are anti-Semitic. The funniest visualization of the presence Stephen and Bloom cast over the chapter, however, is in the crumpled paper ball Bloom threw in the river two chapters ago floating through the chapter with the same constant flow as the cavalcade.
And as ever, Joyce builds on the strands of plot cast out to this point. Stephen's father is fully revealed as a destitute alcoholic borrowing money to spend it down the pub, humiliating the family and leaving Stephen wondering whether to try to save his favored sister from the rest or to run away entirely. In that bookstore, Bloom buys an erotic novel for Molly, his flushed mood suggesting he understands how ironic it is to be buying a racy novel for his cuckolding wife. But perhaps that flush is the result of his own arousal that he does not get out with Molly.
I sound like a broken record at this point, but damn am I loving this book. I understand that it's frustrating to have to turn to multiple sources just to figure out what the hell is happening, and Lord knows I've struggled with this book. But if you just keep going, more and more pieces fall into place. It's like push-starting a car: it's a bitch getting the thing running, but once it's got momentum, it's easy. This chapter might infuriate people, but I found it hilarious that Joyce played a trick to put things in perspective. Everything has a purpose in this book, and even Joyce's little game keeps deepening things and connecting threads.