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Chris McCabe: Dedalus

There are quite a few writers/novels influenced by James Joyce and specifically by Ulysses. However, as this review will appear on Bloomsday, 16 June, the date on which the novel Ulysses is set, this tribute to Ulysses seemed most apposite. Chris McCabe is best known as a poet though this is one of two novels he has written (the other one is a modern version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth).

When you read this book, you will soon see that it looks very much like Ulysses. As mentioned Ulysses is set on 16 June. This book cleverly tells us what happened on the next day 17 June. It uses the same form as Ulysses, with the chapter headings that Joyce used and took from Homer, starting with Telemachus (Stephen Dedalus is his Joycean equivalent). As a poet he easily fits into Joycean language. We can see this the way he combines two word to make a new one. Wet is a prime example. We have scornwet eyes, plumpwet frame, sandwet taste of the sea, weedwet shells, sexwet fluids, Liffey-wet freshness and so on. Of course, wet is not the only word at play here. And we also have longer compounds such as dillydallyingdancingdedalus. All of this immediately reminds us of Joyce and even of Homer with his wine-dark sea. There are other wordplays to be found. For example, Dedalus sees a crab and this brings to mind cancer, both the sign of the zodiac but also the disease that killed his mother.

Though McCabe is very much channelling Joyce and, to a lesser extent, Homer, he has also changed things a bit by channelling Shakespeare as as well, particularly Hamlet. The book opens with the scene-setting Act 1, Scene 1: Elsinore. A platform before the castle / the Martello Tower and will continue with Hamlet references such as comparing Dedalus and Haines (Haines is the student Buck Mulligan has invited to stay in the Martello Tower, much to Stephen Dedalus’s annoyance) to Cornelius and Voltimand, two courtiers Claudius sends off to Norway to prevent Fortinbras from attacking Denmark. There will other references to including the chapter headings which give the location of the chapter, both in Joyce terms and Hamlet terms. Joyce did make quite a few allusions to Hamlet in Ulysses but McCabe outdoes him.

While the chapters match those in Ulysses, the contents do not entirely but do so to a great degree. The opening chapter is set in the Martello Tower, as in Ulysses, we see him meeting Mr Deasy, headmaster of the school where he teaches and then teaching the children as in Ulysses. However, there are differences as we see in this episode (Nestor). Naming is very much. postmodern thing, and in this episode, Stephen, as a teacher, has his pupils naming, first by discussing the issue and then making a list of the things that define who you are as individuals : gender, name, hair colour, interests, skills. (I would bet a lot of money Joyce would not use the word gender in this context – it does not appear in Ulysses at all – but, rather sex.)

Of course, sex (in the sense of sexual relations) does appear. There are several mentions of Monto, (the Dublin red light district) but it is not mentioned by name at all (though probably in spirit) in Ulysses. Dedalus and Mulligan have been there the night before and Mulligan had abandoned Dedalus there, to the latter’s annoyance. They had clearly been whoring and drinking. However, Dedalus does later meet a young woman (whom he initially mistakes for the ghost of his mother – shades of Hamlet) – to whom he seems attracted.

There is a lot that is very resonant of Joyce – the story-line, the characters and the skilful use of Joycean language. However there a few things that are different. The first is his use of anachronisms, of which there are many. I have already mentioned the use of gender where, till recently, the word sex would be used but there are other such updatings. Bloom, for example, peruses the menu in a restaurant and sees avocado, chili, garlic salt, hummus and celeriac. I doubt if any of these would have been found in Dublin in Joyce’s day. There are more blatant references, for example to musicians such as Bono, The Smiths and even Echo and the Bunnymen. Not sure what Joyce would have made of them. There is a reference to Ryanair. I am sure Joyce could have found a place for Michael O’Leary as a bad guy.

In the Oxen of the Sun section of Ulysses, Joyce runs through English prose from Anglo-Saxon to the nineteenth century. McCabe takes a different approach. He takes a slew of twentieth/twenty-first century novels (and tells us what they are) and then does a sort of parody of them. For example, for 1984, he starts off It was a bright muggy day in June, and the clocks were striking ten. (The opening line of 1984 is It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen). Some of the books are (somewhat), Joycean, such as Eimear McBride‘s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, which is very Joycean, some of them much less so such as 1984.

The other modern technique he uses, at least in the ebook, which I read, is the use of hyperlinks. Hyperlinks were going to be a thing in literature when Joyce (Michael, not James) wrote afternoon, a story (yes, lower case) but though we use them every day on-line, hypertext literature has not really happened. One of the problems is the bane of those of us who create them – rhe target disappears. McCabe makes a link to St. Stephen’s Traffic Management Scheme in Dublin and links to the Dublin City page on it. It has now deceased. (The St. Stephen’s Traffic Management Scheme is relevant to the story). Most of the links, however, go to schematic drawings of blocks with excerpts of the text written on them, an interesting post-modern touch.

Towards the end McCabe is (somewhat reluctantly) interviewed by an unnamed person on his love of Joyce, his relationship with his father and his father’s love of Orwell and Joyce before we get into Joyce and computers.

This book skilfully manages to be a homage to Ulysses, a sequel to it and a thoroughly original novel in its own right. McCabe knows his Joyce but he is a modern man and, while respecting what Joyce wrote, he has no qualms about providing some updating, some tampering with the text and definitely doing his own thing.

Publishing history

First published in 2018 by Henningham Family Press