What a book. I don't know that "reference" is the right category to put this under per se, but nor am I actively reading it, nor have I abandoned it, nor do I necessarily plan to read it in the future, nor do I think one can "finish" it in any meaningful sense.
It's a retelling of human history as an abstract metaphorical dream as played out by an Irish family. The father, who is also Moses and Abraham and every other patriarch from every story in human mythology, may or may not have committed some sort of sin which may or may not have been sexual in nature. His name is Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, and he is also civilization and construction and engineering - he is the Tower of Babel, and like that and every other tower he is doomed to climb and fall.
The mother, who shares an identity with the Daughter but also with the Old Woman, holds the family together. She is The Feminine Principle, Anna Livia Plurabelle. She is every river, every natural principle - every rock and every tree. If the Masculine Principle is a Tower that is constructed against God and Nature, then the feminine principle is the environment which fits into God and Nature like a lithe naked metaphor.
The sons, Shem and Shaun, are Conflict. Shem is The Bad Son - he is Lucifer, always fighting with Jesus/Shaun his brother. Shaun is a Postman, he deliver letters - he follows in his father's footsteps, loves his family and is in many ways a sap.
Shem, however, is an artist - where Shaun can deliver letters (a metaphor, of course, for all art - Shaun can't create, he can only transmit what he's received) Shem can create them.
It goes on and on like this - this cast of characters adopts various personae from throughout history and reenacts various archetypical Stories.
I guess the point, then, is that in exploring the various archetypes that make up all human mythology (and this is cross-cultural - did I mention that the book is written in a pidgin language that incorporates elements from some 30 different languages and concepts from every academic discipline from turf grass science to quantum mechanics, sometimes in a single sentence?) Joyce is able to arrive at some interesting conclusions about how we as a species work.
When writing about this book, generally speaking any place to stop is as good as any other - so I'm gonna wrap it up here. But I definitely recommend finding a local reading group (don't try to read this on your own - it's not that you're not smart enough, it's that you need to be in a group with a french-speaking anthropologist and a catholic theologian just get past the first sentence, let alone the second) and giving this a shot if you want to experience the most challenging text I can think of.
If readernaught creates a "reading group" functionality I may even be tempted to start a group for this book. :)
Read this in high school and thought it was kinda neat.
Read it again years later as part of a narrative study of modernist fiction and it blew my mind. Fitzgerald manages to pack so much human truth into a deceptively simple piece of fiction that it's possible to read this book in a day and then spend a month just arguing about it.
As a text for practicing critical theory, this book is wonderful - what does this say about the author's voice vs the narrator vs the "implied author," for instance? What does it say about the period in which it was written? What does it tell us about the way "plot" works as a function of events and characters? There are a million different approach to narrative study, and because this book is so short but so flawlessly written we can use it to explore all of them.
Even more interesting to me, though, is the sheer beauty of the prose. When I read it in high school it was just another book. Half a dozen years and a few hundred books later, though, the beauty of Fitzgerald's writing just leaped off the page. His offhand descriptions of the colors, scents and sounds of his environment are breathtaking - his subtle characterizations are heartbreaking.
In short, this novel to me is that rarest creature: it manages to be both a perfect model for examining the way fiction works as an artificial construction, and a staggeringly real depiction of The World as it Really Exists in a way that's somehow even more "real" than our day to day experience.
This book blew my mind - it's a completely humbling experience to read it. It starts pretty slow and honestly comes across as a bit pretentious - lots of made up words, lots of complex philosophical conceits.
What it evolves into, though, is probably the best piece of speculative fiction I've ever read. It's not for everyone - but if you're a lit nerd with some background in world philosophy and a strong sense of Western history and an understanding of Quantum Mechanics then this is going to be a page-turner. I promise.