The phantom manuscript

"Ulysses 1" fever is blooming all over as stores prepare for an onslaught of Joyce fans.


Wes Tooke
May 20, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

On May 25, a line will stretch around the counter at every college bookstore in the country. And shortly after 9 a.m., the first fan will emerge triumphantly from a store carrying a copy of "Ulysses 1," the long-awaited prequel to James Joyce's classic.

For a generation of corduroy- and sweater-clad professors, the new book marks the triumphant return of a literary giant. "This is the biggest literary event in decades," says market analyst Thomas Sehorn. "Bigger than Toni Morrison. Bigger than that bitter English guy who uses the long words." Sehorn estimates that 30 to 40 percent of America's college English professors will call in sick on May 25. "And," he says, "if they really want to read the thing, every day for a month."

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The manuscript, which was cleverly hidden in the text of "Finnegans Wake," was discovered by Joyce scholar Edgar J. Cheever. "It turns out that nobody had ever read past the first 50 pages of the book," Cheever says. "One day, thinking I was holding the dictionary, I flipped 'Finnegans' open and it was just staring at me. Maybe that was Joyce's little joke." While the original "Ulysses" describes one day in Dublin, the prequel focuses on the events of the night before Stephen Dedalus wakes up; the last 340 pages of the 430-page "Ulysses 1" use a series of elaborate metaphors to describe the various characters as they lie asleep.

Although "Ulysses 1" has received mostly confused reviews, its publicist, James Wyatt, is certain that the prequel will do well. "The name Joyce has a certain cachet," he says. "Plus this book has more of everything. More symbols, more imagery, more metaphors." Barnes & Noble has pledged to put the book near the front of its stores. "We won't move the big authors -- Grisham, Clancy, Steel -- but we'll do our best," says company spokeswoman Ellen Nolles.

Marketing the book initially proved to be difficult, but Joyce's estate has signed a number of deals in recent weeks. Hasbro Toys is producing an action figure -- an artist's rendition of an id trying to strangle itself -- and the marketers also tried to get McDonald's to commit to a national campaign. "We wanted to put short passages on Happy Meal boxes," Wyatt says, "but the McDonald's people wouldn't bite." The deal eventually went to the Gap, which plans on incorporating a James Joyce cardigan in its Khaki Writer ad campaign.

The soundtrack has also generated a lot of interest in the music industry, and will include Snoop Dogg, U2 and the Backstreet Boys. Snoop, who is himself an enormous "Ulysses" fan, specially recorded a song called "Ho in Dublin." Miramax has purchased the film rights and has reportedly talked to both Roddy Doyle and Quentin Tarantino about writing the screenplay. "They wanted more profanity, more drugs ... a hipper look," says one insider. "Doyle, being Irish, is the favorite. But if it needs more violence, they'll go with Quentin."

The prequel has also struck fear into the usually placid literary book publishing field, where other publishers are staggering their releases around "Ulysses 1." "We can't compete with Joyce," says Eli Teeder of Teeder and Whydum. "We've decided to hold our big titles like 'Ant Herding in Mali' and 'My Crappy Childhood' until the fall season." Off the record, however, many publishers privately speculate that "Ulysses 1" might fall on its face. "Brilliant writing is just so 20th century," says an agent, who asked not to be named. "That's not what sells books."

Outside a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Manhattan, where a pair of literature professors from Yale are camping on the sidewalk with only a case of fine Scotch to protect them from the elements, the focus is on the impending release.

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"I've spent my whole life waiting for this moment," says H. Barnaby Maughm, a specialist in Irish poetry. "I'm going to read it five times in the first six months. I want to be the first in my department to find 1,000 symbols."


Wes Tooke

Wes Tooke is an editor and writer at the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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