The Sixteenth of June

  • Maya Lang
  • Scribner
  • 241 pp.

Author Maya Lang attempts a modern take on the classic Ulysses.

Maya Lang’s debut novel, The Sixteenth of June, takes its title from the date on which the events of the book occur — June 16, 2004, which, as devotees of James Joyce know, is the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, the day on which the events of Ulysses take place. Indeed, Lang has taken more from Joyce than just the date; her entire novel is constructed around the notoriously difficult modernist epic.

Her protagonists are named for characters in that book — there is a Stephen and a Leopold, a Nora (the name of Joyce’s wife, on whom the character of Molly Bloom is based), and even a golden retriever named Dedalus. The day’s events include a funeral and a celebration, and Lang’s 18 chapters mirror Joyce’s 18 episodes. Lang even seems to suggest that her novel might serve as an updated, hip, lite version of the modernist text: Her dedication reads, “For all the readers who never made it through Ulysses (or haven’t wanted to try).”

Lang’s updated version of Joyce centers on three characters in their late 20s in Philadelphia. Stephen and Leopold Portman are brothers from a wealthy family. Leopold, the younger, is like Joyce’s Leopold Bloom — visceral, non-intellectual, preoccupied with food for much of the book.

“Two kinds of pork at breakfast!” he thinks exuberantly as he prepares bacon and sausage leftovers. A frat guy at BU, he is now an IT consultant whose refined older brother has compared him, on various occasions, to a Neanderthal, Homer Simpson, and Fred Flintstone. Twenty-seven, he is a diehard pro sports fan interested in working out and material possessions (coffeemakers, kitchen countertops, and cars occupy his thoughts at various times).

Stephen, a Yale grad, is also in keeping with Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. Nearing 30, he is working, in an aimless way, on his Ph.D. at Penn. In an ironic jab, Stephen is writing a dissertation on Joyce’s contemporary Virginia Woolf (who did not hold Joyce in high regard).

While his family believes he may be gay, in reality, Stephen “is interested in neither cock nor tail,” being completely absorbed in the intellectual life; Leopold’s polar opposite. Growing up, Stephen was a “gifted, brooding boy” and a “delicate bird — asthmatic, astute,” on whom his parents lavished their attention.

The third character in the triangle is Nora, nearly 28, a talented singer from a working-class background who has given up opera following the protracted illness and eventual death of her mother. As the best friend of Stephen and the fiancée of Leopold, she is a composite, both an intellectual and physical being. She says to Stephen, “You and me — we think everything to death.” Yet, when singing, she inhabits her skin fully.

“When Nora sings, she feels it in her body,” Lang writes. “Music is visceral.”

Rather than feeling exultant about her future marriage, Nora feels trapped, unable to commit to a date, unable to feel passionate about opera. She suffers from trichotillomania (hair pulling), has seen a series of therapists, and is absorbed with her own fragile emotional state.

The other key characters in the novel are June and Michael Portman, Stephen and Leopold’s wealthy parents, who live in Delancey, an ostentatious house that June is remodeling. The couple throw a big Bloomsday party every year, and yet, as Stephen remarks, “They’re more interested in what Ulysses says about them than what it actually says.” Their “knowledge of Ulysses is questionable at best,” so it is a bit mystifying that they have gone so far as to name their sons after characters in a book about which they know so little.

Nora finds the Portmans cold. “They never react with feeling, with heart. Even their dilemmas feel supercilious.” In contrast to her own modest upbringing, Nora believes the Portmans’ “life at Delancey was a spectacle, even their possessions on display.”

June suspects that Stephen is gay and wishes he would come out so that she would have a cause, a new project, something to fight for and support. “A gay son would be the perfect development for her,” Stephen reflects.

Leo, with his plebian interests, meanwhile, “is the equivalent of a gay son in a right-wing family.” He is the disappointment, with his dreams of a conventional life, yet he is too good-natured to hold a grudge against his older brother.

Lang’s novel is a portrait of a privileged, self-absorbed family, delving into the minutiae of one day in their lives. Their problems are trite (the complicated logistics of orchestrating a party, the self-pitying ennui of a directionless graduate student in the seventh year of his Ph.D. program who still gets an allowance from his parents), and they seem to express little genuine emotion (everyone is chipper and poised, perfectly polished, and rather than getting a sense that emotions are buried, we are left with the feeling that there are no emotions beneath that shiny surface).

The plot of The Sixteenth of June is intricately constructed, the parallels to Joyce painstakingly rendered. Lang knows how to put together the pieces of a novel, she knows how to write a graceful sentence. And yet the story, in the end, lacks force. Lang’s work is no substitute for Ulysses,but is rather a pale echo, a bloodless attempt at homage.

Despite the carefully drawn parallels between characters, there are no stylistic parallels, no experimental ones. Lang takes no risks. Readers looking to her novel in order to learn something of Joyce would barely skim the surface. His work challenges the reader, requiring rigor and devotion, while The Sixteenth of June is ultimately a light, forgettable read.

Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a book of nonfiction, Xylotheque: Essays, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Reader’s Digest, Blue Mesa Review, So to Speak, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska.

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