Summer Assignments

By Mark Alpert

I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks, enjoying the cool weather in northern Michigan, but even when I’m not working on my manuscript, I’m still thinking about writing. For instance, my daughter will take AP English in the fall, and her teacher gave the class a very ambitious summer assignment: reading “The Dead,” the famous James Joyce story that is the climax of Dubliners.

Joyce can be tough going, but Dubliners is his most accessible book, and even high schoolers can tackle it. Ideally, the short stories should be read in order, because Joyce gave a logical structure to the collection. The first three stories are told from the point of view of children — “Sisters,” “An Encounter,” and “Araby.” The next four stories are about the disappointments of young adulthood (“Eveline,” “After the Race,” “Two Gallants,” and “The Boarding House”) and the next seven focus on the even more tragic failures of mature men and women (“A Little Cloud,” “Counterparts,” “Clay,” “A Painful Case,” “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “A Mother,” and “Grace”). “The Dead” wraps up the collection by weaving together all the themes explored in the book: the paralysis of Irish society, the frustrating inability to cast off the English colonizers, the horrible toll of alcoholism on Joyce’s countrymen, and so much more.

But my daughter didn’t like “The Dead” very much after the first reading. She and her classmates couldn’t see the connections between the first part of the story — which describes a holiday party hosted by Kate and Julia Morkan, a pair of Dublin spinsters struggling to run a music school — and the second part, which focuses on their nephew, Gabriel Conroy, and a disturbing revelation about his wife’s past. The connections are there, though, and my daughter began to see them after reading the story a second time. The key to seeing them is the story’s title. The spirits of the dead hover over both parts of the story; the partygoers, for instance, talk about monks who sleep in their coffins (“The coffin is to remind them of their last end”) and long-lost singers whose voices are so fondly remembered simply because they’ll never be heard again. The dead stand guard over Dublin in the form of statues whose shoulders and heads are capped with the snow that is “general all over Ireland,” shutting down and paralyzing the country. And at the end of the story, Gabriel realizes that his wife will never love him as much as she loves the ghost of Michael Furey, the delicate seventeen-year-old who refused to go on living without her.

I loved rereading this story with my daughter, but it also disheartened me. How can I go back to my manuscript now? All my sentences look like trash in comparison.

But hey, I’ll give it a shot.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

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