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Reviewed by:
  • Joyce: A Guide for the Perplexed
  • Stan Smith (bio)
Joyce: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Peter Mahon. Guides for the Perplexed Series. London and New York: Continuum Publishers, 2009. xii + 197 pp. $19.95.

A note tucked away at the end of Peter Mahon's excellent new introduction to Joyce's fiction speaks of his own and any likely reader's perplexity, faced by its infamously elusive allusiveness, erudite intertextuality, and autoreferentiality. He argues, concerning the classroom scene in Ulysses, that "Stephen's refusal to tell his students a story echoes the reader's relationship with the text" and "serves to make clear that the reader-student will need extra guidance from the teacher-text" (56). Uncannily, he adds, Ulysses has already prepared for such a student-reader in the figure of Cyril Sargent, the pupil who stays behind for extra help with his algebra, since, like him, "the reader-student must follow Stephen's lead" in attempting to decipher the symbols Joyce sets "mov[ing] in grave morrice, in the mummery of their letters" across the pages of the novel (56, U 2.155-56). Mahon elucidates Stephen's lucubrations in this passage with a quick sketch of the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, "whose famous Guide for the Perplexed tried to reconcile Aristotle and orthodox Judaism" (57).1 It is possibly only the publisher's template that postpones Mahon's note on Maimonides to page 182. In context, [End Page 562] however, the deferral assumes Derridean significance, converting a mere passing reflection into a signal as cryptic and portentous as Joyce's own, as it bounces back off those textual "mocking mirrors" Mahon has just been discussing (U 2.159): "I note in passing that Maimonides's book also recalls—spookily enough—the title of the series of which the book you are now holding in your hands is a part" (182 n13).

Mahon has here positioned both himself and the reader within the multiple self-reflecting exchanges of Joyce's text, compelling us to focus on the material book we hold in our equally material hands, which have this moment turned to page 182 in order to read the author's endnote. Joyce does something similar in the classroom episode in a passage Mahon does not quote, where Stephen instructs another pupil, who is reading "Lycidas" aloud, to "[t]urn over," a directive followed by the noncommittal "[h]is hand turned the page over" which reminds the reader of Ulysses that he or she has also just laid hands on an actual, physical book (U 2.80, 82).

The reader is very much an active participant throughout Mahon's study as, by implication, "s/he" is in all of Joyce's fiction. "S/he" could hardly find a better page-turning cicerone through its perplexities and complexities than this lucid, reader-friendly guide—though Mahon is duly deferential to those heavier tomes from which he acknowledges drawing, in particular, Don Gifford and Robert J. Seidman on Ulysses and Roland McHugh on Finnegans Wake.2 I am surprised, though, that there is no mention of Harry Blamires's The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide through "Ulysses,"3 which in its several editions has served as a reliable companion for generations of students, at least on this side of the "scrotumtightening sea" (U 1.78).

Faced by the labyrinthine multifariousness of Joyce's writings, Mahon's strategy for providing a thread through the discursive maze is as cunning as anything devised by Ariadne. In each of the four major texts, he seizes upon some particularly opaque or recherché formulation likely to faze the neophyte reader, and makes the discomfort they induce the key to unlocking his readings. Thus, in the opening chapter on Dubliners (disarmingly called "Introducing Joyce," as if inviting us to shake hands with the author), he tugs a ritual forelock to the concept of "epiphany." But he then immediately subverts customary expectations by nominating a rather more recondite concept to explain how the epiphany, far from reinforcing, actually deconstructs the "realism" usually attributed to these tales. Three words that the book's opening paragraph makes strange, as the young narrator himself acknowledges—"the...


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