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It seems nearly obligatory to have a police procedural series set in Ireland, but the adventures of Peter McGarr, head of the Murder Squad of the Garda Siochana (the Irish Police), are anything but run of the mill.  This installment manages to combine an entertaining murder mystery--a professor of Literature, specializing in Joyce, is murdered on Bloomsday (June 16) while dressed in full Joycean regalia--with one of the better explanations of the novels of Joyce and Beckett that I've ever come across.  Here is how another professor describes their novels to McGarr:

    It begins with Joyce and the novel of competence.  In spite of what I just said about him in a
    negative way--since we must smash old idols in order to raise new--Joyce was a man of undoubted
    imminence, great imagination, deep learning, and a brilliant intellect, none of it more obvious than in
    the manner in which he 'plotted'--and I mean that in the strategic, not simply tactical way--all of his
    works, but in particular Ulysses, which, to continue the military analogy, was his breakthrough
    book.

    About words he once said, 'Why own a thing when you can say it.'  And since with his intellect and
    astounding facility with languages, tongues, stories, and myths, he could say most things, it
    therefore followed that he--James Joyce, impoverished émigré son of a Dublin idler--owned not
    only the things he could name in the contemporary world, but many other things from all recorded
    time.  That was step one in the grand stratagem to become the modern Shakespeare.

    Step two was to analyze the novel.  Some critics contend that Joyce decided that the novel was the
    ideal literary art form of bourgeois society, in which, of course, people define themselves by the
    things that they own.  The novel then is like a container--first word to last, beginning to end, front
    cover to back cover--that contains things or at least words that are references to things.

    It follows, then, that that novel is best which, within the established limits of the container, includes
    the greatest number and type of things.  Joyce decided he would set the limits of a single day in
    Dublin and write a book about it.  He chose the sixteenth of June, 1904, the day that he first walked
    out with Nora Barnacle, the shop girl from Galway, who later became his wife.

    But he would tell every thing about that eighteen-hour period, such that he would give (and I
    quote), 'A picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the
    earth, it could be reconstructed out of my book.'  And so he poured the names, places, events,
    streets, buildings, race horses, tram schedules, tides, prices, advertisements, weather, a dog, a dead
    man, a birthing hospital, a cemetery, music, the theater, pubs, songs, murder, mayhem--you name
    it--along with the story of the day for two men who, although only partially acquainted, are like
    father and son.  They are like the hero Ulysses himself, lost and wandering and trying to make their
    way back to impossible homes.  Hence the mythic element.

    Of course, how Joyce wrote the book was also new, an attempt to weave the actual verbal texture
    of Dublin--the specific whatness of Dublin verbal things--into the container.  Ulysses is so perfectly
    constructed that it takes exactly eighteen hours to read aloud, the amount of time that one would
    have been awake on such a day.

    Joyce said, 'If I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of every city in the world.  In
    that particular is contained the universal.'  ...

    With the Wake Joyce decided to write the ultimate novel.  Instead of exhausting the possibilities of
    some other day--or a year or a decade or a century--in dear, dirty Dublin, he expanded the container
    to its final extension.  For setting he chose nothing less than the world entire.  For characters all
    people, speaking all voices, who had ever lived.  Time?  All time, past, present, and--since there is a
    belief that certain combinations of words can sometimes serve as prophecy--perhaps even future
    time as well.  In conception, at least, it was an impossible project.

    But he made it all into the simple tale of the dream of a Dublin pub owner.  Finnegan, like Jung
    claimed all of us can, establishes touch with the collective unconscious of the race of man.  And his
    mind, wandering forward and back in time, touches upon all symbol, myth, and history from the
    hieroglyphics on ancient tombs through Vedic and Norse myths, the Bible in its several forms, sagas
    and passion plays and verse, and on to modern literature, right up to Beckett himself, who was
    often sitting across the room from Joyce, and so appears in the Wake.

    During the twenty years that it took Joyce to write the Wake, he had a team of readers--the literary
    groupies of his day--scouring the Bibliotheque in Paris, reading all the great books he suggested.
    They would synopsize each and include a few representative pages of text so that Joyce could then
    add both statement and word to Finnegan's dream.

    With a few dozen minds and at least one, perhaps two--here I mean Beckett--indisputable geniuses
    working on the Wake, it became the ideally competent novel that the ideally erudite reader might
    peruse for the rest of his life and still never appreciate in all its ideal complexity.  In other words
    Joyce, within the assumptions of his aesthetic, exhausted the form of the novel of competence.
    Another novel more complete probably could not be produced, since it would require another Joyce,
    greater scope, a larger vision, more and better help, a second Bibliotheque Nationale.

    And since the form of the novel as written from Richardson to Joyce was exhausted, Samuel
    Beckett turned around and attempted to exhaust the form in its 'negative' image, as it were--the
    novel of incompetence.  By incompetence Beckett does not mean novels written by incompetent
    authors.  He means that, unlike Joyce, he cannot assume the possibility of communication among
    human beings, much less between human beings and the collective unconscious.

    For Beckett words don't work.  They are an imposition, given us by others after our births; they
    really can't describe our own particular experiences in our own individual terms.  Also, when we
    speak words, we need somebody else to hear and acknowledge them.  A witness.  In other words,
    we can't say us in our own terms for anybody's ears but our own.  And if we were to try, say, by
    speaking out all the words of the Others once and for all, we would find that there's nothing to say,
    since Western civilization assumes that we are no more than what we were when we were born--a
    tabula rasa, a void, un neant, a nothing.  And nothing can only be described by silence.

It turns out that Bartholomew Gill is a pseudonym for Mark McGarrity, an American who attended college in Dublin and wrote his thesis on Beckett.  He makes for a wonderful guide to both Dublin and to the modern Irish novel in this witty mystery.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Mystery
Book-related and General Links:
    -Mark McGarrity (Mostly Fiction)
    -REVIEW: of THE DEATH OF A JOYCE SCHOLAR (NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of McGARR AND THE P.M. OF BELGRAVE SQUARE (NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Mystery Guide - McGarr and the P.M. of Belgrave Square by Bartholomew Gill
    -REVIEW: of THE DEATH OF AN IRISH SEA WOLF  (NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Death of an Irish Sea Wolf (Writers Write)
    -REVIEW: of Death of an Irish Tinker (Doras Roundtower Mystery Book Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of THE DEATH OF LOVE (NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of McGARR AND THE METHOD OF DESCARTES (NY Times Book Review)

Other McGarr Mysteries:
    -McGarr and the Politician's Wife (1977)
    -McGarr and the Sienese Conspiracy (1977)
    -McGarr and the Cliffs of Moher (1978)
    -McGarr and the Dublin Horse Show (1979)
    -McGarr and the P.M. of Belgrave Square (1983)
    -McGarr and the Method of Descartes (1984)
    -McGarr the Legacy of a Woman Scorned (1986)
    -Death of a Busker King
    -Death of a Joyce Scholar: A Peter McGarr Mystery (1989)
    -The Death of Love: A Peter McGarr Mystery (1992)
    -Death on a Cold, Wild River: A Peter McGarr Mystery (1993)
    -Death of an Ardent Bibliophile (1995)
    -The Death of an Irish Sea Wolf: A Peter McGarr Mystery (1996)
    -The Death of an Irish Tinker: A Peter McGarr Mystery (1997)

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