The most impressive technical feat of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is that it manages to record nearly every detail from a day in the life of the book’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom, and to elevate those events to the status of literature. Mythology, even. Readers track Bloom’s journey step by step, as he navigates the labyrinthine streets, pubs, and offices of Dublin, yet Bloom’s errands bear the symbolic weight of The Odyssey. Ulysses battled his way from island to island, fighting witches and monsters, but Ulysses suggests that modern, urban lives might be just as significant.
Recording stray thoughts, private conversations, newspaper headlines, and even an amorous act in the bedroom, Ulysses functions as a super-catalog of the mundane. Joyce’s approach—a persistent surveillance of events in Dublin on the date of June 16—implies that a larger story remains hidden in a plain sight, an explanation that might finally make sense of the world, lurking in the data of everyday life. We just need to capture and record that data.
Joyce allegedly had larger ambitions than merely crafting a novel. According to his friend, the writer and artist Frank Budgen, Joyce wanted Ulysses to be so exhaustively detailed that it might operate as a kind of literary hologram. In his own words, “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the Earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” It is literature as 3-D point cloud: a total model of the metropolis and an infinite archive of everything that takes place inside of it.