It was my first "idea" novel, one which wrestled with notions of God and spirit, matter and purpose, art and religion in a mature, albeit, serious, way. It was the first novel I read which felt as constructed, like a house, or a cathedral. It had the same insistence as poetry, rhythmic, musical, metaphorical. Each image, each phrase, each bit of dialogue seemed carefully weighed, evaluated, deliberated over, and placed in just the right place from which to build the structure. Joycean prose is nothing short of architectural, approaching and sometimes surpassing the best lyric poetry. It taught me a valuable lesson in compression and the use of negative space, that is those pockets of things left unsaid, allowing the reader to draw conclusions, making them participants in the work. His prose is meticulous.
What makes it unique as a modern novel is the way Joyce plays with point of view. The narration begins with a child's point of view, in our case, Stephen Daedalus' 3rd Person Limited point of view. The story begins like a fable, "Once upon a time..." and reflects all the mystery and wonder about the world that a child might have at a tender age. The diction is simple, without being simplistic, and through imagery (birds, flight, repetition of words and phrases, "cold," "light," dark," etc), the story feels woven. As the story evolves, and Stephen grows, the diction grows in complexity, new imagery appears, new dichotomies, reason and spirit, death and life, light and dark.
Joyce stages his characters, placing them within doorways, on stairs, transitional spaces. But besides imagery, and stage direction, Joyce's novel taught me (and continues to teach me) about the power of memory and about character interiority, that is, what happens inside a character's mind as he experiences the world and feels affected by his change.
To date I have read this book ten times, and it's one I return to at least once a year. Like all great books, it changes everytime I pick it up. I make new connections, new associations, see in certain images things I hadn't noticed before. By being small the book is big, filled with ideas that challenge one's notions of the purpose driven life. The novel continues to give and give and give and I suspect by the time I have left this earth, I will have read it at least a dozen times more.