Caveat Lector
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Caveat Lector
Margot Norris. Virgin and Veteran Readings of Ulysses. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. xi + 294 pp. Paper $28.00

Virgin experiences are among the most and least memorable of one’s life. Whether it be a first lovemaking, roller coaster ride, plunge into the ocean, viewing of the Grand Canyon, or reading of Ulysses, the initial encounter is one you will never forget or ever fully remember. Moreover, anticipation of the event will almost always be fueled and colored by accounts that veteran lovers, adventurers, or readers have offered. Nonetheless, Margot Norris finds it useful, even stimulating, to posit a virgin reader who might approach Ulysses in ways that will bring previously unremarked aspects of its narrative construction into the foreground. Let that callow reader beware, however, because Norris predicts that she/he will be entrapped, manipulated, and even incriminated by Joyce’s text. Norris’s virgin reader harks back to the implied reader proposed by reader-response critics of the 1980s. Like such critics—Wolfgang Iser, to name just one—Norris insists on the crucial function of gaps and omissions in the text, blanks that invite the reader’s active participation in making meaning. Furthermore, as Norris explains it, such a coconspiracy between text and reader (and author, too, in Norris’s estimation) is fraught with ethical implications. Norris does not leave her virgin reader unattended, however. Rather, she simulates a virgin reading that is shadowed by veteran interpretations, provided by herself and an array of seasoned Joyce critics, resulting in a more thorough-going understanding of how the fictional world of Ulysses is constructed.

To facilitate and ground her interpretive approach, she employs strategies borrowed from the field of narratology, especially emphasizing Possible Worlds Theory (PWT), citing the works of Thomas Pavel, Marie Laure-Ryan, Ruth Ronen, Gerald Prince, and Lubomir Dolezel, all of whom concern themselves with the ways in which the “fictionality” or the “ontology of its fictional worlds” operate in a work of fiction. Augmenting the theories of these critics, Norris focuses on “how multiple, intersecting and interlocking worlds—of actuality, discourses, [End Page 429] thought, fantasy, and intertextuality—are constructed and operate in Ulysses.”

Drawing on the fields of analytic philosophy and the philosophy of logic, contemporary PWT steps away from—without leaving behind—the strictly formalistic approaches of earlier narratological theories. Norris references Laure-Ryan’s definition of PWT as “a formal model based on two concepts.… the metaphor of ‘world’ to describe the semantic domain projected by the text; and the concept of modality to describe and classify the various ways of existing of the objects, states, and events that make up the semantic domain.” Norris finds, too, that Prince’s definition of PWT provides a bridge between the old and new narratological approaches. He observes that “narratives comprise temporally ordered sequences of states of affairs … taken to be actual/factual … that are linked to other states of affairs considered non-actual or counterfactual and constituted by the mental activity of various characters (their beliefs, wishes, plans, hallucinations, fantasies, etc.).” In effect, PWT reveals the mechanisms by which fictional worlds conceal their fictionality thereby allowing readers to determine what is true or false in the fictional world. Additionally, Dolezel observes that “the text’s power to grant fictional existence is explained by the procedure of authentication.” What is introduced into a text by an anonymous third-person narrator, for example, is automatically authenticated as fact within the fictional world of the text, while discourse introduced by a fictional character is not. The process of authentication is not so simple as it may seem, however. Thus Dolezel establishes rules for “graded authentication” to accommodate such cases as obviously prejudiced first-person narrators, among others. Along with Laure-Ryan, Dolezel also recognizes that readers of necessity rely on their “actual world knowledge” when processing information and filling in the gaps provided in a fictional work.

Having established the principles of PWT, Norris suggests ways in which The Odyssey as an intertext of Ulysses may become as much a hindrance as a help to the virgin reader. She insists that such constraints as The Odyssey might impose be actively resisted...