Two years ago yesterday I followed a man dressed in black into a small pharmacy in Dublin. Bars of yellow soap covered the shop’s dark wooden shelves and countertops. I watched from across the shop as the man conversed loudly with the pharmacist, gesticulating as he spoke. He ordered a specific type of lotion. He then grabbed a bar of soap, indicating that he’d return later to pay for the soap and lotion. I lifted a bar to my nose and sniffed: lemon. The man waved goodbye to the pharmacist and left. I put down the soap and followed him out.
While I don’t usually stalk errand-running strangers in foreign cities, this was an exception: I was participating in Bloomsday, the annual reenactment of James Joyce’s Ulysses, on the anniversary of day the novel takes place, June 16, 1904. The man clad in black was an actor portraying protagonist Leopold Bloom as he moves through his day in real time, in the actual spots around Dublin where Joyce set his narrative. I was part of a spectator’s group of about thirty people—some dressed in period garb, including an unwitting infant in a lace collar and antique stroller—that trailed Bloom through the streets of Dublin throughout the day. We visited a home on Eccles Street that could have been Bloom’s. The pharmacy was Sweny’s, a Dublin establishment still selling the same lemon-scented soap that Joyce first made famous in 1922.
The first Bloomsday took place in 1954, on the fiftieth anniversary of the novel’s events. Today, Bloomsday actors perform the nearly full-day cycle mostly from memory, culminating in Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy, which is typically performed at about ten P.M. (when Joyce’s narrative ends). I didn’t make it that far. Unlike the talented performers with seemingly limitless stamina, by midafternoon, I was exhausted and my feet ached. So some friends and I peeled off from the group and ducked into a pub.
As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I could make out a fellow patron dressed in bold red and white horizontal stripes, with a stocking cap to match. Then I saw that his friend was dressed identically—and so were others: without searching, we had found Waldo, a dozen times over.
We joined a table partially occupied by three female Waldos sipping pints of Guinness. They were from Spain, they said, students, like us. They and the other Waldos were in Dublin to set a world record for the most Waldos ever convened in one spot. (In the interest of full disclosure, the Waldos referred to themselves as “Wallys.” “Waldo” is the Americanized version of the name, which is British in origin.)
We saw Waldos in the street that night. Waldos at restaurants, on buses, in nightclubs. Waldos on bikes. Waldos sitting on high walls, feet dangling.
Waldo was everywhere.
Two days later, on June 18, 2011, the Waldos descended on Merrion Square, in the heart of Dublin. One European newspaper reported that there were 3,567 of them. (Wikipedia has their total at 3,872. Either way, they smashed the previous record of 1,052, set at Rutgers in 2009.) As far as I know, the record still stands.
Whether or not the Waldos intended it, there was something grand and poetic, even subversive, in their flooding the city that first evening just as Bloom, the prototypical protagonist on a quest, sought to make his way home. In a move starkly at odds with the framework of Bloomsday, which adheres closely to the novel that spawned it, the Waldos made a choice not to reenact a scene from Where’s Waldo? (In my mind, this would look something like a single Waldo hiding in a crowd, while someone is tasked with finding him.)
Rather, with record-setting in mind, the Waldos chose to clone this famously elusive character so that he was now omnipresent. This gesture rendered irrelevant the reader’s (or spectator’s) perennial search for him. That weekend in Dublin, you were confronted by Waldo before you even thought to ask where he was. Your quest was over before it began.
This notion of the moot question, the stymied quest, is one fraught with narrative tension. It smacks of the avant-garde. It’s alienating. It flies in the face of Bloomsday and Ulysses, which depend in part on a quest narrative and a reader who’s along for the ride.
It induces a sort of existential crisis.
Joyce probably would have loved it.
Lindsay Gellman is a writer living in New York City.