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There are no virgins when it comes to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Difficult and allusive, Joyce’s novel seems to invite if not require the use of a whole library of guides, annotations, and maps. Yet it is precisely the infamously annotated nature of Joyce studies that makes Margot Norris’s new book so refreshing. Virgin and Veteran Readings of Ulysses asks us to consider the question of what it is actually like to read Ulysses.
What would happen if a veteran Joycean reread Ulysses while pretending to be “innocent of later information that will eventually modify or clarify earlier events and character appraisals” (3)? To answer this question, Norris outlines a hypothetical reading that follows the structure of the novel from “Telemachus” to “Penelope.” Her profoundly descriptive reading of Ulysses draws heavily on concepts from Possible Worlds theory. She emphasizes the Possible Worlds concept of the “fictionality” of narrative—“the state or condition that makes a text fictional and the processes by which fiction is constructed” (4). As all fictions are necessarily incomplete, reading narrative is a process predicated on inference. Identifying what Possible Worlds theorist Lubomír Doložel terms “sites of implicitness” (qtd. in Norris 10), Norris argues that the virgin reader of Ulysses has to make increasingly risky inferences about a novel that “fails to show or tell us many things” (3). Norris outlines hypothetical encounters between a virgin reader and these “sites of implicitness.” Her argument is as a result generative in the sense that invites readers—virgin or otherwise—to reflect on the way that modernist fiction interpolates its readers in risky and speculative reading strategies.
The interplay between risk and readerly speculation is a key aspect of Norris’s argument. “The degree of reader participation is inevitably much greater for a virgin than a veteran reader,” she notes, “thereby producing not only more extensive speculation, greater risk, but also a wider and more interesting range of interpretation” (10). A virgin reader realizes, for example, that Stephen Dedalus’s decision to cancel his plans with Haines and Mulligan and deliver his Shakespeare lecture at the National Library is “a problem-solving move, with a high-priority goal and a high risk of failure” (64) only after having made “unsatisfactory inferences from what ensues” (63). Similarly, Norris notes that until the final pages of the novel, a virgin reader would be completely unaware of whether Molly Bloom actually had an affair with Blazes Boylan that afternoon.
In highlighting the virgin reader’s necessarily unsatisfactory inferences about Ulysses, however, Norris implies that risk and [End Page 411] speculation attend more veteran readings of modernist fiction as well. This fact becomes clear in her discussion of what she terms ethical implicature—the way that the novel “puts [the reader] on the spot, obliged to make judgments of an ethical character without hope of clear and just resolution” (3). The virgin reader is not obligated to respond to these situations in any particular way but rather obliged to experience ethical dilemmas. One such dilemma occurs in “Cyclops.” The virgin reader encounters a racist rumor about Leopold Bloom that is either “going into circulation, or prepared for circulation” (115). The episode’s unnamed narrator participates in the events being described, himself playing a substantial role in the creation of the rumor. Whether the story is already being circulated or whether the unnamed narrator is merely preparing to do so, it is clear that the circulation of that story will be disastrous for Bloom. Norris notes that only Bloom and the reader are in a position to dispel the anti-Semitic rumor fostered by the narrator. Since Bloom is “the one person who will never hear” the rumor (132), the reader is left in the uncomfortable position of having to silently bear witness to the birth of a potentially ruinous racist narrative.
Reading Ulysses is a risky affair for the virgin reader; but is it equally risky for the veteran reader? Speculation is risky in part because a virgin reader does not have all of the information necessary...