- Portrait of McGonigle
University of Notre Dame Press
246 Pages; Print, $27.00
Just what did Leopold Bloom set out to accomplish on his famous walk of June 16, 1904? Scholars and students, as well as lawyers and booksellers, have been debating the purpose of Bloom’s rituals in Ulysses (1920) for almost a century. His mission may have been to serve an experiment in stream of consciousness and point of view. Or he might have been burdened with reinventing his life and the world around him. Bereft of the son he lost and befuddled by his status as an outsider in his own land, Bloom could be said to have stumbled into a potential changeling for his son, in the form of the young Stephen Daedalus. But to cement the bonds of his remade family; and his remade self, Bloom, with the help of his wife, Molly, must codify the first immaculate conception of modern times. Bloom does so through an internal monologue (and Molly through her soliloquy) that is an exercise in stretching the possibilities of language, an instrument imbued with the power of creation. It is a power much like sex and conception, and it is particularly notable in Bloom’s Ireland, where the national language has been banned and supplanted by the colonial tongue of English. English is itself a lexicon of many amalgamations, or taboo conceptions. By making this language their own, the Blooms and their creator, James Joyce, do no less than resurrect a consciousness that could rescue their country from persecution and self-hatred.
Whether Stephen Daedalus, who was understood to be a stand-in for Joyce in The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916) is meant to be that Savior has been open to discussion. At the very least, he has been a symbol for a new kind of fiction; call it the advent of modernism or, as Virginia Woolf alluded to, a change in human consciousness. Thomas McGongile acknowledges as much when he quotes an oft-heard axiom spoken by an anonymous Hungarian in his new novel, St. Patrick’s Day/Another Day in Dublin: “…all novels since Ulysses take place on June 16th.” McGongile, however, has his narrator, presumably “Thomas McGonigle” because he is never named outright though shares some biographical similarities with the author, begin his similarly kaleidoscopic tour through Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day, 1974. The date signals this enterprise will be more circumspect than Bloom’s undertaking. Joyce chose his day to change the world in print because it was the day of his first date with Nora Barnacle, the woman who would become the mother of his children, and his wife (although their marital status has also been debated ad infinitum). Nora famously masturbated Joyce to a climax that day, initiating him both into manhood and a society of self-appointed master builders—picture painters, dramatists, writers and visionaries who were lords and creators of their universes. Sex would be no longer an animalistic or carnal act, or even the center of romance, but a means to a far more grandiose end, ranking with acts of fine artistry.
“McGongile” of St. Patrick’s Day, meanwhile, finds himself commemorating “a day of national shame….” St. Patrick’s Day’s confusing providence rests in the fact it marks the death of the saint, rather than his birth; and it carries the stain of British imperialism, since the British engineered the holiday to distract their Irish conscripts fighting against the colonies in revolutionary America. Although this history is not overtly discussed in the novel, “McGonigle” will not be permitted to forget this divide, despite his prodigious intake of alcohol. But it could be fitting, in this instance, since what Joyce accomplished through language, McGongile does with his nonlinear depiction of time. Dublin is where “McGongile” “had spent years…which had been more alive than all the years spent in other places….” But the narrator’s imagination dips in and out of remembrances of other times and places, such...