I’ve recently read three substantial novels dealing with strikes or similar struggles: Frank Norris’ The Octopus, Zola’s Germinal, and now James Plunkett's Strumpet City. Strumpet City portrays the lives of several characters affected by labor unrest culminating in a protracted and devastating lockout. The characters are fictional, but the story is based closely on events between the years 1904 and 1914 in Dublin. The characters range from the destitute to the upper-middle-class but they concentrate on the working poor. There's a lot of good writing, vivid and often touching evocation of the city in strife. An important character starves to death. The novel is constructed like the currently fashionable genre of linked short stories. That is, sections of two to six pages follow a character in third person narrative. Each section tends to be artfully constructed with a beginning, middle, and end and a feeling of completion or even illumination at the last. The overall structure is not so good — the book has a feeling of being less than the sum of its parts. Important characters appear two thirds of the way through, and the end rather fritters away. The characters are not stereotypes exactly, but they're not richly endowed with inner life or individuality. You come away with a sense of suffering imposed by capitalist exploitation, and of the painful struggle that has brought us somewhat improved conditions today. The book has a humanity: the author has something good to show about every character and frequently shows how decent human beings can be to one another when you might not expect it. The most interesting characters are two men who have painfully mixed feelings in the class struggle. One is a priest (The official church is very much opposed to the labor movement.) who feels keenly the suffering of his parishioners and is destroyed by his helplessness to act upon his feelings and the unfairness of their treatment. The other is a member of the coupon-clipping class who gradually moves over to the side of the workers.
It is interesting to compare this novel to Ulysses, which takes place in 1904. Something like one third of the population of Dublin was living in dire poverty at that time, but you would never know it from Ulysses, which is mercilessly middle-class. Characters in Ulysses are hard up for money, but it is in a middle-class way, not the edge of starvation. Both novels celebrate the Dublin musical scene. Several characters are deeply involved in playing music, and playing music together in households. Going to light operas and similar performances is constantly in the background. The Lord Mayor of Dublin who was also one of Molly's lovers is mentioned in this book. The time when I thought most often of Joyce was in the sections devoted to any one of the three priests that are important in Strumpet City. Reading their conversations and their concerns about Catholic doctrine and their personal status, I felt I could have been reading Joyce.