A Garrulous Irishman, Joyce

by | Oct 7, 2006 | Creating Characters, Writers

A garrulous Irishman, Joyce

Was known for his narrative voice

But he wrote about poo

So what can we do?

But stick to May Alcott, for choice.


James Joyce, sometime drinking buddy of Earnest Hemingway, spent seven or eight years writing  a little ditty called Ulysses.  During the last few of those years, he was being supported by an American woman who had heard that he was doing remarkable things in the world of literature.  When Ulysses was finally published, Joyce sent her a copy.  She placed it on a shelf unread, because she’d been told it was a dirty book.  You couldn’t buy a copy of Ulysses in the states until the courts ruled otherwise in 1933, because it was supposed to be a dirty book.  About a month ago I was waxing lyrical, as I am wont to do, about Ulysses, when my interlocutor remarked that she’d heard that it contained descriptions of people peeing.

In fact, the narrator does follow a character into the outhouse for his morning business.  The narrator is also present on several occasions when characters are visited by the need to micturate.  But if that’s all someone got out of the book, then I just don’t know.


In a very clever kid’s book whose title escapes me, these is a little boy who has gotten into trouble at school because the teacher was reading a children’s book called Mike Mulligan and the Steam Engine to the class.  In Mike Mulligan, which is a real book, the crisis is that a building foundation must be dug by a certain time.  Mike and his steam engine save the day by staying down in that hole all day and all night for some heroically long stretch, and not leaving the hole until it is done.  The author is very specific about that.

The little boy in the kid’s book becomes concerned, and finally asks the teacher how Mike Mulligan went to the bathroom if he stayed down there day and night.  Immediately, the whole room full of kids has only the one thought on it’s collective mind.  How did Mike Mulligan go to the bathroom?  Teacher gets flustered, can’t find a way to get past it, and punishes the child.

I just love the way a fictional character is bothered when he hears an actual story about a fictional character whose author has forgotten that actual people need to do things like take a pee now and then.

Joyce doesn’t make this mistake.  Joyce’s characters are, I submit, about as close as words on paper can come to being actual human beings.  Leopold Bloom, trying to enjoy a glass of wine and a Gorgonzola sandwich, is distracted by another character’s runny nose.  Will it drip into his beer, or will he snuff it back up in time?  It doesn’t get much more human than that.  And later in the book, after the wine and Gorgonzola have been digested, Leopold Bloom lets out a supremely musical fart.


Although it may be an effective technique for making fictional characters seem more real, you may be relieved to hear that The Great American Desert contains no descriptions of people peeing.  Much of the action takes place on a farm however, so there are a number of references to manure.  I hasten to add that, whenever it makes an appearance, the manure will already be on the ground.  You won’t have to watch it being produced.