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Cannibal Joyce (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 3-4, Spring-Summer 2009
pp. 585-587 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0047

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Reviewing Richard Adams's best-selling Watership Down for The Atlantic, Phoebe Adams spoke highly of the author's talents as a teller of adventure stories but wondered why he had chosen to confuse things with a cast of characters "inexplicably camouflaged as rabbits." Thomas Jackson Rice's Cannibal Joyce is a collection of smart, provocative, wide-ranging essays on matters having to do with Joyce. Good for it, and for all such. What it is not is a book about Joyce and cannibals. Cannibalism is certainly one of the many subjects considered in its pages but one that competes for attention with, for instance, the histories of Berlitz Schools, condoms, television, and much else.

The problem is not so much that the title is a red herring for the reader—who really cares that The Merchant of Venice is not really about the merchant of Venice or that A Midsummer Night's Dream is set in May?—but that it was apparently one for the author as well. The book's weakest chapter is the first, precisely because it attempts to set up cannibalism as a master trope for all to come; and its weakest moments thereafter are those that try to make good on the promise by corkscrewing the meaning of "cannibalism" into odd shapes so as to insert it into spaces where it has no business being. If, like me, you are familiar with some of these chapters in their original forms, you cannot help but notice a kind of "and now a word from our sponsor" rhythm to the way the very word "cannibal" has been, as Stephen would say, "spatchcocked" onto patches of text once innocent of its presence (U 9.991).

In short, and in spite of the title, this is far from being what Hollywood scriptwriters call a high-concept project. But high-concept is not everything. The digressive, the free-form, the shaggy-doggish have their claims too. With Cannibal Joyce, the best policy is to dispense with any lingering rage for order on your part or the author's and settle down to enjoy a ramble through a lot of interesting stuff more or less related to Joyce and his times. Rice is curiously learned. In accumulating material for this book, he has followed where his curiosities led him, and, because he is a determined fellow with an interesting mind and a knack for tracking those curiosities down through library stacks and Google rabbit holes, one is usually happy to follow after. Symptomatically, some two-thirds of the bibliography consists of non-Joycean sources; a typical list of entries in the index is this one, under "V": "Valensi, Georges; Valéry, Paul; Vampirism; Vico, Giambattista; Victor Talking Machine Company; Virgil." Of the six items, only "Vico, Giambattista" sounds an expected note.

Accordingly, the main virtue of Cannibal Joyce is that it surprises. Think doctoral dissertation, and then imagine its opposite. The close readings of Joyce, when they appear, are, on the whole, of very high quality, but the real appeal of the book is the background noise churning behind those readings, noise from which the subject of Joyce fades in and out like a song from a staticky radio. At times, it seems to be daring the reader to protest: "All very interesting, Mr. Rice, but exactly what does this have to do with the issue at hand?" The section on Tom Swifties is as good an example as any. Is anybody out there old enough to remember the Tom Swifties fad of the early sixties? ("You may take the prisoner down, said Tom condescendingly"; "She loves me, she loves me not, said Tom lackadaisically.") Rice gives us some entertaining examples, discusses their American genesis (Minneapolis, believe it or not), and points out that Tom Swifties got their name from the immensely popular Tom Swift series of boys' books, whose hero's specialty was inventing things, like television, well ahead of the technological curve. To which, again: yes, all very interesting, Mr. Rice, but what does it have to with the presumably Joycean issue at hand?

Actually, maybe a thing or two. The Tom Swift books tell us a lot about...

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