Stories That Demand to be Told
So the stories that demand to be told--Moby-Dick, the Divine Comedy, the Odyssey, etc.--tend to have something going for them before questions of style, plot, coherence and wit even enter the critical equation. This type of great book addresses, in the most direct possible terms, the broad metaphysical questions that, however subconsciously, tend to grip our interest whether we like it or not: what is truth, and what is illusion? What exists beyond this life? What is good? What is evil? We can't help being drawn to this kind of book, based on its subject matter. By virtue of our existence as humans, we must be interested in this book.
There is nothing of general interest about the premise of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Yes, everyone has been an adolescent, but not everyone, it is safe to say, has inhabited the consciousness of an isolated Irish boy during the closing years of the nineteenth century. Not everyone has experienced absolute epiphanic joy in being exonerated of the charges of having his glasses broken on the rugby field.
It's difficult to describe the plot of Portrait of the Artist without making it sound--in contrast to that of the big-question classic-character Great Books--specific, internal, almost impoverished. And yet, besides the similarly at-times-obscure Shakespeare ("All right, it's a revenge tragedy, except the guy just worries and talks to himself a lot"), there is no one better than Joyce--at least in classic English literature--at writing books so completely steeped in the essence of life.
Dickens has his vibrant grotesques; Austen has her wit and fidelity to moments of speech; Fielding has his ribald energy; and Nabokov has his icy specificity. But all of these are lenses, filters through which life is distorted--agreeably distorted, as might a mirror in a fun house. Joyce, like Shakespeare, distorts and organizes life, yes. But rather than a fun-house mirror, bending the shapes it reflects in order to frighten us or make us laugh, Joyce's labyrinthine prose is, ultimately, a clear window, and the distortions only consist of his arranging beautiful, specific things just beyond the glass.
Viewed as a series of plot points, the story is as interesting as any individual's story--and it's arguable that every individual has an interesting story. But we're still faced with the question: why this individual? Why his story? Joyce answers by drenching his moments in systems of imagery and consciously-controlled wordplay--all of it at first off-putting, distancing, like the pane of glass that separates us from the interior of the building. And then we stop focusing on the fact that the glass is glass, and start trying instead to see through it.