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"Ulysses" in Critical Perspective (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 1, Fall 2007
pp. 154-158 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0029

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Each year, more writing about Ulysses extends the miles of library space already devoted to the subject. It arrives cloaked in a multiplicity of arguments and theoretical approaches that reflect—and quite frequently portend—the latest developments in literary criticism and theory. This is a healthy state of affairs in any field of study, yet it also presents Joyce scholars with the constant challenge of keeping up. They not only need to become familiar with an expanding body of new writing but also must see the new in the context of what has come before. How does one grasp the big picture of nearly nine decades of criticism surrounding the keystone novel of modern Irish writing, European modernism, and twentieth-century literatures in English? Where will—or should—this immense critical project direct its energies in the years to come?

The essay collection "Ulysses" in Critical Perspective, edited by Michael Patrick Gillespie and A. Nicholas Fargnoli, addresses these questions in a Janus-minded assessment of Ulysses criticism. Comprised of nine essays housed in three sections, the volume features current scholars representing a healthy multitude of critical approaches. Each weighs in on past patterns and future possibilities for his or her area of specialization, and several provide intriguing new interpretations of the text. Collectively, they supply a panoramic survey of the field that should be of great interest both to veteran Joyceans, many of whom figure prominently in the narrative of critical history these pages trace, as well as to those who are comparatively new to the conversation but for that precise reason are all the more intent on knowing its backgrounds and current contexts.

The book commences on what first seems a counterintuitive note. While one might expect to begin with a broad overview, along the lines of Stuart Gilbert's guide or Carlo Linati's schema,1 the opening section titled "The Words on the Page" zooms right in for a look at the heart of the novel. In the first essay, John Paul Riquelme reminds us of the importance of Joyce's stylistic micro- and macrocosm when he takes a reader-response view that considers the novel alongside Seamus Heaney's poem "Alphabets."2 Grounding his essay in a fourfold definition of memory, Riquelme performs his own act of recollection by tracing the history of close readings of Ulysses. The concept recalls New Critical methods for skilled close reading but adds to these the political implications and historical weight they too often ignore. Riquelme then applies this framework to his own interpretation of the function of style in the "Eumaeus" episode. Overall, his emphasis on the precursory and proleptic impulses at work in Joyce's book provides an effective overture to the collection.

From details of style, the second essay by Margot Norris turns to elements of narrative structure. She offers a fine primer on narratology and showcases it as a specific literary approach to Ulysses. In that sense, Norris's contribution does what so many of these essays do well: provide a useful evolutionary timeline of the critical subfield as well as a specific application of its recent and emerging theory. At certain moments, the boundaries are not always clear between Riquelme's regard for language and Norris's study of narrative as, for instance, when both lead to the same critical crossroads where we encounter a trio of 1980s studies (by Karen Lawrence, Riquelme, and Gillespie3). One is left with a momentary sense that a sort of Molly Bloom-like fluidity will prevail over any or all categorical designations, despite these authors' or editors' best intentions. Yet such an overlap is not so much redundant as realistic, reflecting the interlocking, complementary aspects of critical theories if not the intellectual parallax experienced when reading Joyce. Norris concludes with a look over the horizon, considering how we might begin to test the "narrative excesses" (49) of Ulysses against Paul Grice's "Cooperative Principle" of conversation between narrator and reader or apply Gerald Prince's theory of tellability to contemplate the novel as emerging from "disnarration—out of a world of narrative possibilities that were foreclosed for one reason or another and never occurred" (45).4

Part II...

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