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Party Pieces: Oral Storytelling and Social Performance in Joyce and Beckett (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2008
pp. 157-160 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0111

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In a backhanded compliment to James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, many critics who ostensively choose to write about the works of these authors, in fact, do everything they can to avoid direct engagement with their texts. Instead, by expressing intense concern for epistemology or an over-refined sense of extratextuality, such individuals complicate peripheral concerns without illuminating the literature before them. While the creative complexity of the canons of Joyce and Beckett make it easy to understand why one might feel intimidated by the task of interpretation, for someone actually interested in responses to the works, reading this sort of non-criticism has the attraction of a visit to the all-night dentist. Happily, Alan W. Friedman's latest examination of these authors runs counter to such impulses and provides straightforward interpretations unimpeded by the camouflage of polysyllabic obfuscations.

Party Pieces stands as an all-too-rare example of the best in academic writing. It offers erudition presented to enhance the reader's understanding and not wielded like a club intended to bludgeon one into assent. It holds one's attention with graceful prose distinguished by clarity and insight. And it approaches scholarship with humility without diffidence, offering options for understanding and celebrating powerful works of fiction and drama while acknowledging explicitly and implicitly a range of alternative hermeneutic possibilities.

Friedman's book grows out of a seemingly simple cultural observation that becomes a profoundly insightful commentary. He takes the idea of party pieces, a staple of Irish social life in Joyce's and Beckett's time, and folds that phenomenon into penetrating reappraisals of key works. Party pieces, as Friedman tells readers, are exactly what one would expect from the term: songs, recitations, or other forms of entertainment prepared by individuals for performance, when called upon, at social gatherings. While party pieces may not stand as a uniquely Irish custom, the practice was certainly an insistent part of the culture that shaped Joyce and Beckett. The possibility of performance changed the dynamics of get-togethers, reconfiguring the status of guests and reshaping their perceptions of one another. Like any deeply rooted custom, the impact of party pieces went well beyond specific performances at particular gatherings, and it is Friedman's genius to recognize this and trace its manifestations in the writings of Joyce and Beckett.

Joyce's canon presents the more obvious examples of the impact of party pieces on ordinary interactions. Recalling the custom when encountering the uncle of the narrator of "Araby" (though not strictly at a social gathering) offering his impromptu recitation of "The Arab's Farewell to His Steed" reminds one of the pervasive imminence of the performative impulse. A casual reading of the story might simply dismiss the recital as a concrete demonstration of the effect of drinks on the way home from work and as a narrative technique to increase dramatic tension while the boy impatiently waits for money to go to the bazaar. The idea of a party piece, however, gives the scene greater complexity. It clarifies the constraints, beyond financial need, that the boy feels against leaving. It meliorates one's judgment of the uncle's insistence on an audience. And it underscores for readers the social endorsement of the performing impulse that the boy has followed throughout the story. None of these observations radically reconfigures conventional understandings of "Araby," but they greatly enrich one's sense of the possibilities for interpretation.

Performance and non-performance in Dubliners take on enhanced meaning with the concept of party pieces in mind. The desiccation of Mr. Duffy's life is emphasized by his solipsistic refusal to put himself forward in a social situation. The rudeness of Bartel D'Arcy becomes more striking when one takes into consideration the presumption of participation that would underscore any invitation to a gathering at the Morkans' home. Indeed, one can argue more confidently for a sense of self-awareness and even redemption in the character of Gabriel Conroy when he castigates his own insincere public performance. A knowledge of the conventions surrounding party pieces adds complexity to the characters in Joyce's short stories, making reactions like the easy dismissal of Joe Hynes's tribute to Charles...

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