The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang
|The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster|
|Summary: This playful, accomplished debut transplants many characters and set pieces from James Joyce's Ulysses to contemporary Philadelphia. A sophisticated intertextual tribute that still stands alone as a current work of art, this is my favourite book of 2014 so far.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 256||Date: July 2014|
|Publisher: Simon & Schuster|
|External links: Author's website|
On June 16th, 1904, James Joyce had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle – an occasion he commemorated by choosing it as the one-day setting for his magnum opus, Ulysses; main character Leopold Bloom gives his name to the annual Joyce celebration that takes place around the world on June 16th.
Maya Lang's playful and exquisitely accomplished debut novel, set on the centenary of the original Bloomsday, transplants many characters and set pieces from Joyce's Ulysses to near-contemporary Philadelphia. Don't fret, though – even if, like me, you haven't read Ulysses, you'll have no trouble following the thread of Lang's novel. In fact, she dedicates her book to 'all the readers who never made it through Ulysses (or haven't wanted to try).' (Though if you wish to spot parallels, pull up any online summary of Ulysses; there is also a page on Lang's website listing her direct quotations from Joyce.)
On June 16th, 2004, brothers Leopold and Stephen Portman have two major commitments: their grandmother Hannah's funeral is happening at the local synagogue in the morning; and their parents' annual Bloomsday party will take place at their opulent Delancey Street home in the evening. Around those two thematic poles – the genuine emotions of grief and regret on the one hand, and the realm of superficial entertainment on the other – the novel expands outward to provide a nuanced picture of three ambivalent twenty-something lives.
The third side of this atypical love triangle is Nora, Stephen's best friend from Yale – and Leo's fiancée. Nora, a trained opera singer (thus making her the stand-in for Molly Bloom), is still reeling from her mother's death from cancer one year ago. She's been engaging in self-harming behaviour, and Leo – a literal-minded IT consultant – just wants to fix her. Nora and Stephen, by contrast, are sensitive, artistic souls. Stephen, too, is struggling to find a meaning in death, but also to finish his languishing dissertation (on Virginia Woolf) after seven years.
In her careful portrayal of race and class realities, Lang rivals Zadie Smith's talent. Literature is almost as potent a marker of upper-class status as money here: some of the Portmans might not have even read Joyce's masterpiece, but that doesn't stop them name-dropping and maintaining the pretence of being well-read. 'There's something calculated about what my parents do,' Stephen admits uneasily, as if 'they're more interested in what Ulysses says about them than what it actually says.'
While Lang might not mimic the extremes of Joyce's stream-of-consciousness style, she does prioritize interiority over external action by using a close third-person voice that shifts between her main characters' points of view. Their histories and thoughts are revealed mostly through interior monologues, though also via conversations. I especially love Nora's confession to her therapist, and Stephen's thought process while taking a shower in his parents' luxurious new bathroom ('the showerhead...a bright round disk with a thousand black holes like a decapitated sunflower').
This is also a very funny book. Lang's writing is full of mordant shards of humour; one of my favourite lines was 'No one in a eulogy ever said, She watched TV with the volume on too loud.' Her metaphorical language is also striking and intense, as in these two examples: '[Nora] and her mom had been stranded on an island, the tropic of cancer with its thickets of growth' and 'There was Hannah Portman's name, the serifed font skeletal and scythe-wielding.'
Stephen is a wonderful character; I relate to his melancholy and nostalgia for 'that happy, malleable phase of postcollege life before everything set in the grey cement of adulthood.' He and Nora share a sense of being stuck – of having talked themselves out of options and into bad habits; 'It's like life comes preprogrammed,' Stephen thinks. 'Like we go with the defaults, even if it means being miserable.' But ultimately I found this book to be very hopeful, even life-affirming, as the characters summon up the courage to imagine how life could be different. 'It's starting to dawn on me that this is what I've got, and I need to get used to it,' Nora declares, but from that realist starting point the possibilities are endless.
The Sixteenth of June is my favourite book of 2014 so far: a pure delight to read, I only wish it could have been 100 pages longer. I already look forward to Lang's second novel, Phinney and Maude, which she says will be about 'women in science, gender expectations, grief, and how we don't really understand our parents as individuals…until we are adults.'
'And so today we celebrate Bloomsday. We celebrate a book's ability to move us.' Whether it's Ulysses or The Sixteenth of June that has moved you, this is a reminder that the power of literature is worth celebrating every day.
Further reading suggestion: The Innocents by Francesca Segal employs a similar strategy of literary homage (in that case, to Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence), whilst Umbrella by Will Self also draws inspiration from Ulysses.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang at Amazon.com.
The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2014.
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