Drawing By Louise Zergaeng Pomeroy
I did not enjoy Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It was tedious. There were a lot of dark thoughts about humanity. There was a lot of Catholicism. There was a lot of Irish history. There was a lot, a lot of manhood. And unless I can get in a time machine and go back to college and take that modernist literature class that will explain otherwise to me, there wasn’t actually a whole lot of discourse about becoming an artist that I understood as such. So what song to pair with this novel? I don’t make a habit of listening to music that I don’t like, and it felt wrong to pair a song that I loved with a book that I’ve essentially come to loathe.
That’s when I thought of The XX. They’re the perfect partners for Joyce. In a similar vein to the way Portrait is wrapped up in its Irish-ness, The XX are somehow essentially British. There’s a foreign mopiness to both that my personality can’t seem to access. There’s something esoterically melancholy they tap into across the pond, which cuts across the centuries. Maybe it’s the weather. Perhaps Morrissey or Joy Division would also be good choices in that sense.
Joyce and The XX share qualities as writers, too. Portrait is structurally fascinating, as is The XX’s sparse electronic rock. Portrait is no doubt a novel of extreme literary merit, but Joyce’s best work was yet to come. One will probably be able to say the same for these British teenagers. Moreover, both works have similar tones. The XX are obsessed with sex and probably a little self-flagellating. Is Stephen Daedalus, also? Check. An oppressive humorlessness? Check. The moods of the band and the novel seem to match, and I think that’s why I find both ultimately unappealing: they take themselves SO seriously. The only part of this comparison that doesn’t fit is The XX’s female perspective. In an ideal Joyce-band matchup, the musicians would be all male to the point of one-sided absurdity.
In the end, I have to admit that there’s probably a deeper reason why I see these two as a pair in my dislike. I came to Portrait too late in the game. Without a class to help me analyze its passages, quite a lot of the meaning I’m sure went over my head. I found it boring because I didn’t fully understand it. I say I don’t like The XX because they became so popular before I had a chance to fully digest their unique sound. Both Portrait of the Artist and The XX’s music are smart and innovative and, however you can manage to qualify this, artistically “worthwhile,” (what would Daedalus have to say on this, I wonder?). I look forward to reading Ulysses in the near future, just as I look forward to making a renewed pact not to dismiss music because it is popular.