My wife Niina just spent a week in Dublin and brought me back a souvenir. I was both excited and a bit apprehensive about her gift, because she brought me James Joyce’s Dubliners.
I have had some problems with Joyce in the past. Twice I’ve tried to read Ulysses, and twice I’ve given up. Everyone says how brilliant the book is, but I’ve found myself getting bored with it before the half-way point. My relationship with Dubliners started poorly, too. I was less than impressed with it after the first couple of short stories. Actually, I strongly suspected that some of the stories were conceived, written, revised, proofed, edited and finished in one day, perhaps in one morning. But Joyce was quite young when he wrote it, so I lowered my expectations and kept reading. I’m such an idiot.
I’m an idiot because Dubliners is magnificent. If you aren’t familiar with the book, it is a series of short stories about people in Dublin. Each short story is a stand-alone narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, but each is also one thread woven into a grand tapestry of middle-class life in the city. It begins with children, journeys through adulthood, and ends with the elderly. A kid meets a creepy stranger, a young woman has a crisis regarding marriage, an alcoholic worries about money and beats his son, and a man goes to a party hosted by his aged aunts and muses upon death.
The thing that really struck me about Dubliners is its structure. When you are on the streets of a metropolis you pass hundreds of faceless people who simply melt into the background of the urban landscape. Yet each person has his own story, his own triumphs, his own crises, and his own narrative. There is a self-contained narrative with each and every person. Joyce does it masterfully, but it is not a new idea. In fact, making up and telling those stories is a little mental game I like to play.
When I’m on the metro, or walking the streets of Helsinki, I like to make up stories about the people I see. In my head, I describe what they are wearing, create a history, and construct a story for them. One young girl is on her way to tell her boyfriend that she is pregnant and she is terrified because she has no idea how he will react. A man in a suit is on his way to a job interview, desperate for employment because he is destitute and about to be evicted. An old lady is on her way to the cemetery to have a conversation with her dead husband, bitter and regretful for all the things she left unsaid while he was alive.
One of the rules for fiction is to dream up the worst thing imaginable for your character and then put them through it, so often the stories I dream up are quite dramatic. I imagine that if these people knew what I was thinking they would be horrified. So if you ever see me staring at you on the streets of Helsinki, you probably shouldn’t ask what I’m thinking.
Basically, for a long time I’ve been creating my version of Dubliners in my head. (Although it doesn’t sound right in English: “Helsinkiers.” It sounds much better in Finnish: “Helsinkiläiset.”) Although there are similarities between Dubliners and what I’ve been doing, there are major differences. For one, my little mental games are just that: a way to practice descriptions and short narratives. It’s commonly taught in creative writing classes, and I find it both useful and fun to keep practicing it. None of it is ever written down. Also, Dubliners has a unifying theme of sorts, while the only unifying factor in my stories is the fact I’ve seen these people somewhere in public.
If you are interested in the crafting of fiction, I recommend this little exercise. It is a great way to practice the act of creation. But to do it properly, I encourage you to write these stories down. Who knows? Maybe I’ll do it someday, too.