Clay by James Joyce, 1914
The magic trick:
Call it complicated simplicity. Or maybe simple complications.
Either way, there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye. It’s not even that you can make the typical “Not much happens” complaint. Things do happen. Different, changing relationships are hinted at. But that’s just it – the whole story is hints and allegations. No plot development is resolved; no emotional entanglement is ever more than a mere suggestion to the reader. This is not a critique. This is the magic trick. The story doesn’t pause much to consider all the different possibilities and feelings sprawling out in the subtext. That’s the reader’s job to go back and unfold. And that’s quite a trick on Joyce’s part.
She thought she would have to stand in the Drumcondra tram because none of the young men seemed to notice her but an elderly gentleman made room for her. He was a stout gentleman and he wore a brown hard hat; he had a square red face and a greyish moustache. Maria thought he was a colonel-looking gentleman and she reflected how much more polite he was than the young men who simply stared straight before them. The gentleman began to chat with her about Hallow Eve and the rainy weather. He supposed the bag was full of good things for the little ones and said it was only right that the youngsters should enjoy themselves while they were young. Maria agreed with him and favoured him with demure nods and hems. He was very nice with her, and when she was getting out at the Canal Bridge she thanked him and bowed, and he bowed to her and raised his hat and smiled agreeably, and while she was going up along the terrace, bending her tiny head under the rain, she thought how easy it was to know a gentleman even when he has a drop taken.