Michael Dirda in the Washington Post:
More than 100 years ago, on June 16, 1904, Mr. Leopold Bloom and young Stephen Dedalus separately wandered the streets of Dublin, crossing paths with teachers, priests, medical students, journalists, a woman in labor, publicans, bar maids, drunks, rabid Irish jingoists, sentimental babysitters and at least one adulterer, “Blazes” Boylan, not to overlook Stephen’s shiftless father, Simon, the mourners at Paddy Dignam’s funeral and the whores of the phantasmagoric Nighttown. Eventually, Mr. Bloom rescues Stephen from a Nighttown brawl, and the pair return to 7 Eccles St., where Mrs. Bloom — nee Marion Tweedy and known as Molly — will eventually fall asleep after, yes, the most famous stream-of-consciousness reverie in all of modern literature.
That, in a nutshell, is the action of “Ulysses” (1922), generally regarded as the greatest 20th-century novel in English. Of course, there’s a little more to the book than that, as generations of readers, critics, scholars and exegetes well know. Chapters loosely update episodes of Homer’s “Odyssey”; the language sings throughout; narrative conventions are ignored or revolutionized; literary and social taboos are violated (one scene takes place in an outhouse); and the whole book shifts constantly between interior monologue and outward events, between the starkest realism and the subtlest symbolism. “Ulysses” is arguably the most carefully wrought novel ever written — every word, down to its spelling, is there for an artistic reason.