By Peter Honig
June 16 is Bloomsday, the unofficial holiday celebrating James Joyce’s epic masterpiece Ulysses. The entire action of that novel takes place on June 16, 1904, and so on this date, Joyce lovers from all over the world celebrate in a variety of ways. Some go to public readings and performances while others travel to Dublin to reenact the events of the novel. Last year, a Twitter feed was developed to tweet the entire novel over the course of the day.
And some, like me, make connections between Ulysses, widely considered the literary masterpiece of the 20th century, and The Wire, widely considered the TV masterpiece of the 21st century.
I have been a Joyce fan for even longer than I have been a Wire fan. In fact looking back, I think my obsession with Joyce prepared me for an obsession with The Wire. In many ways, Simon and Burns created the modern heir to Ulysses. Here are some of the similarities:
By setting his mammoth novel (it exceeds 700 pages in most editions) in a single city on a single day, Joyce gives a sense of the infinite in all parts of life. Joyce famously told his friend Frank Budgen that “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.” One of the ways he did this was by making extensive use of real people and places from Dublin. Search Google and you will find countless maps of the action of Joyce’s work, and many of the locations where he set the action still stand in Dublin (most of them now bearing plaques boasting their appearance in the book).
Similarly, The Wire spends a lot of time on the real streets of Baltimore, with on-location shooting and its own fictional geography perfectly superimposed on the real geography of the city. A good portion of the cast and crew are Baltimore natives, and Simon and Burns include real people (Bunk and Landsman, to name a few) and events (like Mayor Schmoke’s radical approach to the war on drugs or Martin O’Malley’s Mayoral campaign). The effect, in both works, is a fictional city that overlaps so much with the real one as to feel like its ghostly double.
Obsession with realism
Joyce saw no greater enemy to the financially- and spiritually-impoverished Irish people than idealism. His fictional counterpart, Stephen Dedalus, constantly resists the pull of various nationalist movements. Lead by artists like Yeats, these movements wanted to redeem the nation from British oppression by reviving Ireland’s ancient folklore and language. Joyce thought that was a mindless escape, and instead he adopted a style of “srcupulous meanness” to show his nation its ugly flaws. This is part of why it took him nearly 10 years to publish Dubliners, his scathing collection of stories. He was obsessed with realism (even when experimenting radically with language) and wanted to force his countrymen to see their nation’s paralysis, which was the real cause of their ills.
Simon and Burns have a similar philosophy. Their goal is to force an American public to confront the ugly realities of our blighted cities and our crippled bureaucracies. At the same time, they had to fight against the absurdly-idealized view of law enforcement that the TV viewing public swallowed in massive doses in the form of police procedurals. As Simon told Nick Hornby, “I pitched The Wire to HBO as the anti-cop show, a rebellion of sorts against all the horseshit police procedurals afflicting American television.” The Wire takes 12 to 13 hours to portray a case that Law and Order would dispose of in 44 minutes. Simon and Burns create a pervading feeling of of disappointment (a feeling that also dominates many of Joyce’s works) that suggests that we will never get any neat resolutions to our problems.
Classical Greek Influence
Joyce used Homer’s Odyssey as a model for Ulysses, just as the Coen Brothers later did for O Brother Where Art Thou (only with less drinking and better music). Joyce borrowed the key events of Odysseus’ 10-year journey home and condensed and modernized them into a single day. This served a double effect: it shrunk the scope of the original, while elevating the seemingly-mundane events and citizens of Dublin to the level of the heroic.
In the Hornby interview linked above, Simon talks about a similar influence stemming from Ancient Greece. He describes his use of Greek tragedy: “We’re stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct—the Greeks—lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality.” In both cases, the creators modernize ancient myths to show how these essential archetypes continue to live in our culture in a slightly-altered but no-less-essential form.
Focus on connectivity
Probably the most stylistically-challenging chapter of Ulysses, “The Wandering Rocks” illustrates the height of urban connectivity. Taking place over the course of a single hour, Joyce takes 18 interlocking sections in which a huge assortment of characters roam the city as their paths intersect and overlap in many unseen ways. It is difficult to describe, but tracking all of the chapter’s complex links takes a chart that would make the most hardened actuary cringe.
The Wire functions on a similar level of connectivity, although stretched out over a longer period of time and space. This is a work of art with “sprawl,” as the characters would say. By the end of the series, there are so many characters that anyone can be easily connected to another by no more than one or two degrees of separation.
This overwhelming sense of connectivity, especially in such socially-paralyzed poverty-stricken cities is probably the greatest link between Ulysses and The Wire, and the greatest joy for their fans. Here are two worlds that show the way cities link all of their citizens and all of their words and actions. Every time I open Joyce’s masterpiece or pop in a Wire DVD, I feel like I am once again entering a wholly realized world. They are fictional, and yet they feel so familiar. I almost expect that I could go to either city, Dublin or Baltimore, and if I went to any corner or any bar or office building, I would run into another old friend who I have never actually met.
Update, Bloomsday, 2013: Just in time for another Bloomsday, I came across one more connection that confirms by belief in the relationship between Ulysses and The Wire. Just last week, Simon went on “Here’s The Thing,” Alec Baldwin’s WNYC radio show, for a fascinating interview. Among other things, Simon described in detail his transformation from journalist to television producer.
Midway through the interview, Simon begins to discuss the structure of his television projects. While he prefaces it by saying that he only compares his shows to literature as a point of reference, he says the following:
“I’m always just using books as okay, Homicide was Dubliners. It’s all connected but it’s James Joyce’s Dubliners; these delicately connected stories about a place and an ethos and twenty-two separate stories. And there’s some story lines continue but there is a fresh theme for each. It was short story writing in a television sense.”
If Homicide, with its “delicately connected stories,” is analogous to Joyce’s immortal story collection, then by extension, the more novelistic, unified story of The Wire would be analogous to Ulysses.
(I might venture to say that Treme is Simon’s Finnegans Wake, but every analogy has its limits)
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