Vol. 31, No. 1 & 2, 2004 - Reviews

Jennifer M. Jeffers
The Irish Novel at the End of the Twentieth Century: Gender, Bodies, and Power
New York: Palgrave, 2002. Pp. 208. $49.95

Reviewed by C. J. Ganter

Literary scholar Jennifer M. Jeffers's book does not aim at an overall discussion of contemporary Irish fiction. As its title indicates, her approach is limited in terms of both corpus and subject matter. On the one hand, the analysis is confined to "Irish novels from the last decade (19891999) of the twentieth centuryespecially those written by emerging young writers" (9). On the other hand, Jeffers's focus is on fictional representations of gender, body, power, and the correlation of these thematic concerns.

In her introduction, the author snubs Hibernistic stereotypes and claims to break fresh ground in offering new ways of reading and understanding life and culture in the Ireland of today. Her analysis is supposed to help "reformulate the Irish identity as a complex and indeterminable entity" (7). Jeffers examines a corpus of sixteen novels in four chapters of her book. In the first chapter, which is not part of the analysis, the author outlines in what way the socioeconomic and political situations in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland interact with changing attitudes toward body and sexuality. All of this, Jeffers argues, is reflected in Irish fiction: "Discursive practices have changed along with all the cultural, economic, sexual, and political changes, and the novel presents, exposes, and parodies the shift" (48). Much of her analysis is based on the works of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Jeffers repeatedly refers to Deleuze's "theory of becoming," as it "adapts to what we have on the pages of the actual novels: radical shifts, diversity, deterritorialization, and repetition with difference" (46). Quoting additional authors (including Michel Foucault and Judith Butler) who have construed body, sex, and gender as normative cultural constructions, Jeffers points out that individuals outside the male-dominated heterosexual matrix, that is, women, gays, lesbians, and hermaphrodites, are its greatest challenge. This challenge and its various implications are her chief interest.

The first three novels Jeffers analyzes make us aware of the fact that in Ireland female agency is in many ways suppressed by the male heterosexual matrix, "the legacy of patriarchal society and male dominated institutionalized power and violence" (77). However, as Paula Spencer, the title character of Roddy Doyle's book The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996), exemplifies, this matrix does not remain unchallenged any longer. One day, Paula protects her daughter Nicola from her violent husband Charlo's attack by hitting him with a frying pan and throwing him out of the housein Deleuze's sense a "repetition with difference," and Paula's initiation into the agency of a "becoming-woman."

In "Bodies Over the Boundary," Jeffers offers compelling readings of five novels that highlight the homosexual position within Irish societyyet another challenge to the heterosexual matrix. Tom Lennon's When Love Comes to Town (1993) and Emma Donoghue's Stir-Fry (1994) represent (post)modern Irish varieties of the queer bildungsroman, while Lennon's Crazy Love (1999), Donoghue's Hood (1995), and Colm Tóibn's widely acclaimed novel The Blackwater Lightship(1999) all deal with the typical 1990s issue of "coming out." In addition, the social ramifications of AIDS and pedophilia are touched upondisruptions of traditional gender/sex boundaries that clearly surpass the concerns of most pre-1990s Irish writing.

In chapter four, "Immeasurable Distance: Discourse, Bodies, and Power," the author discusses prose that keeps on "slipping off the page," i.e., mimetic constructions that defy straightforward reception. As Jeffers tries to prove, above all with the example of Robert McLiam Wilson's Ripley Bogle (1989), spatial and temporal distances between situations, events, and characters are difficult to measure, especially if we come across an unreliable narrator-character who turns out to have fabricated almost every narrative layer.

In her fifth and final chapter, Jeffers analyzes three fictions of "becoming-murderers" in which narrative unreliability is taken to extremes, and "the velocity and power of the fictional bodies is increased to the point of imperceptibility" (140). This chapter is the only one in which Jeffers concentrates fully on formal issues. In lengthy interpretations, she analyzes The Butcher Boy (1992), Breakfast on Pluto (1998), both by Patrick McCabe, and John Banville's Book of Evidence (1989). Jeffers argues that, according to Deleuze's theory, all of these novels display "a continually shifting flow of disconnected, temporary identities" (142). Jeffers considers Breakfast on Pluto a venture that takes Irish writing to new dimensions. Recounted by an aging transvestite named Patrick Braden, also known as Pussy, after his/her mental breakdown inside a London prison, the whole narrative unfolds as a fuzzy confessional. With narrative reliability and gender/sex boundaries radically questioned, Jeffers contends, "this slippery novel" (175) forces the reader to take a different look at Irish culture in general and at Irish fiction in particular.

All in all, The Irish Novel at the End of the Twentieth Century meets Jennifer M. Jeffers's objective of making a helpful contribution to the discussion on how to define "Irishness" in contemporary Ireland. Sporadically applying Gilles Deleuze's theories to the 1990s novel, the author comes up with a number of thought-provoking interpretations, even though it is only in the last chapter that she elaborates on formal and structural problems beyond the examination of plot and character. Jeffers convincingly points out in what way Hibernistic stereotypes are questioned by recent Irish novels, whose sole common denominator seems to be that they are "written by an individual born and living primarily in Ireland" (177).

A few errors such as confusing publication datesas in the case of Emma Donoghue's 1995 novel Hood (100)do not discredit the accountability of Jeffers's analysis in general. Her focus on the thematic aspects of Gender, Bodies, and Power draws our attention to pivotal concerns in contemporary Irish prose. A serious problem, however, seems her limited corpus. The omission of equally relevant texts such as Patrick McCabe's The Dead School (1995) or Bernard MacLaverty's female bildungsroman Grace Notes (1997) is bewildering. Thus, it is highly debatable whether her choice of sixteen novels may count as representative of the fin-de-siècle Irish novel.

While it is not a comprehensive introduction to the Irish novel of the last decade of the twentieth century, Jennifer M. Jeffers's book offers some real insight into innovative ventures in recent Irish writing.