How can it be that within a few weeks of his sudden and unexplained withdrawal from the blogs and web forums which were his primary means of communication with the rest of the world, the genuine literary achievements of Samuel Flood, a man I am privileged to number among my friends, are already sinking beneath a weight of mockery and misunderstanding? A brief correction is surely in order.
As even his detractors will admit, Flood is – in the absence of any positive evidence to the contrary, I persist in referring to him in the present tense – a devoted student of the works of Joyce, and his scholarship received some tokens of respect, however grudging, even from within the groves of academe. I certainly never met anyone whose knowledge of Joyce’s work, or enthusiasm for it, matched that of my friend.
Passion, passion for the works of his beloved hero, was his glory and also his great weakness, for it fuelled his admittedly immoderate on-line behaviour, which in turn gave rise to the opinion that he was a hopeless crank. The obsessed autodidact, the internet addict cloistered in his parents’ spare room, the fanatic interpreter of a novelist with a reputation as “the happy hunting ground of unbalanced minds”; all these stereotypes lay too ready to hand for Flood’s work to be given the attention it deserves. Especially as they each contained a grain of truth.
Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that he would be lampooned as “the mad Aussie rewriting Joyce from scratch.” Inevitable, but inexcusable. Incredibly, some of his online enemies seem to believe that he was attempting to memorise Joyce’s greatest work and then transcribe it verbatim!
You will forgive my indignation at this calumny, which reduces Flood’s life’s work to a monstrous parlour trick or vaudeville act.
Better (but still showing a regrettable lack of diligence or literary understanding) are those who characterise Flood’s work as an attempt to write “an Australian version” of Ulysses. In one meagre sense, this is true, but nothing could be further from my friend’s intentions than the creation of a “mash-up” or any other such patchwork, reeking of the pretentious cant of post-modernism. Flood reserved an especial scorn for such assemblages, which he regarded as mere novelties designed to stimulate literary palates coarsened by the barbarisms of the mass media.
Let us turn with relief to a view of Flood’s own commentary upon his work:
“Obviously, Ulysses is the greatest work of fiction in English. What is less obvious is that it is incomplete.”
“Our task is immense: Joyce delineated only a day and a city. We must go on to delineate the remainder of the world.”
“My Ulysses is a section through my life as Joyce’s was a section through his.”
“Slice of life: Ulysses renovates this old cliché. But nothing can be cut into a single slice. The rest of the cake is ours.”
Delineating the world: this monumental ambition, with its echo of Blake, is the task Flood set himself. Readers of the published drafts of his Ulysses were puzzled by the triviality of the subject matter and the lack of anything Joycean in the style. (Modesty compels me to admit that I was not exempt from this.) The drafts appeared to be a flat relation of Flood’s daily routine, from his waking in the late morning, a prolonged visit to the Marrickville council library where he scanned magazines and science fiction paperbacks and engaged in a brief disagreement with a council employee regarding his right to eat takeaway fish and chips on the premises, his dinner with his parents, and lastly to his endeavours in an online multiperson role-playing game, terminating in his retirement at 3AM. There was no stream of consciousness, no stylistic gymnastics.
Also absent were any signs of Irish culture, a fact all the more surprising to those of us who knew of the pride Flood took in his own ancestry. It was his commentary on this fact which led to my realisation of the true nature of his work, which is nothing less than a continuation of Joyce’s project.
“You’re looking for Irishry, anecdotes, nationalism, wit and Guinness. My first drafts were full of all that – the projection of a fondness for Ireland which I nurtured as an alienated young man in the suburbs. All balls. If Dublin can stand in for every city, then any city can stand in for Dublin. I’ve never even been there.”
Now, both the towering scope and the strange humility of Flood’s ambitions became clear. The first Ulysses is a fragment, the result of the intersection of Joyce’s genius, the episodes of the Odyssey and a particular place and time: Dublin, 1904. Flood’s Ulysses is the result of the same procedure operating on different materials: Flood’s literary talents intersecting Sydney, 2010. Naturally, the outcome of the latter is quite different from that of the first. Lower in literary merit, certainly. But who could hope to equal Joyce in those terms?
Eventually, Flood envisages a total Ulysses, a vast library of books of all sizes, each devoted to the consciousness of a particular reader in a particular place. Blogs and photostreams are, perhaps, the crude forerunners of this great project, which will fulfill, in some sense, Mallarmé’s prophecy that “everything in the world exists to end up in a book.”
Revisions of his Ulysses show a great compression, to the point where all eighteen episodes of Ulysses can be expressed in eighteen letters: “WENT OUT AND CAME HOME.” The Homeric correspondences are maintained by reference to an elaborate cypher. We can see how far beyond mere post-modern pastiche Flood takes his rigorous argument. I will leave the last word to him:
“Dublin was only exceptional because it was his home town, and the Odyssey is only special by virtue of its having formed the template of the epic. Beyond his great verbal skill, Joyce’s creation is the overlay of a book onto a city by virtue of its narrative structure, and this structure is arbitrary enough to allow it to be imposed onto any text and any city. It may be argued that only the great genius of Joyce could create a Ulysses: I maintain that just as Bloom, a humble and ordinary man, is the hero of an epic, so too every text, no matter how lowly, is also an epic, when properly considered. Given this, writing Ulysses is not a daunting challenge. What is difficult, given the limitless resources open to us, is not to write Ulysses, at least once.”