Published by Scribner's on June 3, 2014
Genres: Literary Fiction
A finely observed, wry social satire set in Philadelphia over the course of a single day, this soaring debut novel paints a moving portrait of a family at a turning point.
Leopold Portman, a young IT manager a few years out of college, dreams of settling down in Philly’s bucolic suburbs and starting a family with his fiancée, Nora. A talented singer in mourning for her mother, Nora has abandoned a promising opera career and wonders what her destiny holds. Her best friend, Stephen, Leopold’s brother, dithers in his seventh year of graduate school and privately questions Leo and Nora’s relationship. On June 16, 2004, the three are brought together—first for a funeral, then for an annual Bloomsday party. As the long-simmering tensions between them come to a head, they are forced to confront the choices of their pasts and their hopes for the future.
I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. My views of the book are my own and unaffected by this consideration.
Today is a holiday, one you may not be familiar with, but it is perhaps the best known literary holiday, Bloomsday. Today is the 110th anniversary of Bloomsday, June 16th, 1904, the day on which Leopold Bloom wandered the streets of Dublin in James Joyce’s Ulysses. For those in the know, celebrations take the form of readings and parties in just about every major city around the globe that has an Irish population or a critical mass of readers who revere Joyce’s monumental book. If you are unfamiliar with Bloomsday, The Paris Review just posted an overview of this iconic literary celebration that has built steadily, despite the impenetrability of Joyce’s novel.
Let me be clear, I have never read Ulysses and I am both oddly proud, and deeply ashamed of this fact. Always an aspirational reader, I did buy myself a new* copy of Joyce’s tome last year as I laid out a now abandoned reading project intended to force me to address the gaping holes in my literary education, many of which are even more glaring than the omission of an encounter with Joyce’s second least read book. His most unread book, Finnegan’s Wake, I didn’t even consider adding to the pile.
All of this is to say that I am both supremely qualified, and just as supremely unqualified, to review Maya Lang’s debut novel, The Sixteenth of June. Qualified, because I can say the book succeeds as a work of fiction, regardless of its literary heritage. Unqualified, because I cannot judge if The Sixteenth of June works as an homage to, and reflection of, Joyce. Others will need to weigh in on the book’s success or failure in that regard. But, for those of you like me, and thank goodness that’s most everyone, Maya has provided a quick overview of her references to and quotes from Joyce’s book. As brief as this set of literary crib sheet is, it does provide flowchart that orients interested readers to the chain of influence from Homer to Joyce to Lang.
Even if you do not catch the full set of allusions, there are a host of pleasures in reading this short book. Set on the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday in 2004, the novel follows three twenty-something Philadelphians, Nora, her fiancé, Leo Portman and her best friend, and Leo’s older brother, Stephen over the course of that day. The supreme inside joke of the book is that Stephen and Leopold are burdened by their names, chosen from Joyce’s cast by their parents who may, or may not have actually finished the book, while Nora is named after Joyce’s wife. I am going to go out on a limb here and state that, from what I have gleaned from rumor and the cultural zeitgeist, their characters and dilemmas parallel their literary predecessors. Through a day that takes them from the funeral of Stephen and Leo’s grandmother, to their parents’ annual Bloomsday fete, each of them considers how they arrived at this point in their lives and where they want to head in the future.
It is a familiar moment of reconciling the dreams of post-college life with a reality that demands compromises and readjustments. Early on, Stephen dreads showing up at his parents party without a date thinking that dating has changed from a “casual game of musical chairs. If you sat down for a moment, it was only to get up again. But then the pace had quickened, his friends scurrying to grab their seats. And then not budging.” When he peruses his Yale alumni bulletin all he finds is confirmation that times are changing, “if there was any mention of quirky adventuring, it was alluded to in the past tense: ‘After a brief stint running a microbrewery in Portland, Paul Yu is in his first year of medical school at Columbia.’ People, the class notes informed you, were growing up.”
Through chapters alternating perspectives between the three central figures, we see how Nora’s mother’s her extended illness and eventual death derailed her promising career as an opera singer. Directionless, she has stayed with Leo, drifted into their engagement, and feels trapped in the relationship. We also feel for Stephen, who blazed through Yale and into graduate school as he grapples with writing his thesis proposal, much less the thesis. The only member of his family to become a practicing Jew, he has been visiting his grandmother at her retirement home and feels the family is glossing over her death. And then there is Leo, who has always felt like an afterthought in the elitist Portman family, ignored in favor of the golden boy older brother. Leo just wants to settle down with Nora, live in the suburbs, watch sports, raise a passel of children and simply be happy. He’s waiting for her to move past her mother’s death, but is beginning to doubt that she will want the future he sees for them. All three are paralyzed and over the course of the day search for the emotional strength and will to break free of internalized expectations.
By hewing tightly to the perspectives of her protagonists, Lang generates empathy for all three, while also using the limitations of their perspectives to create moments of irony for the reader who can discern the humor, and the tragedy, in the myriad of misunderstandings and all that is unsaid between them. It is especially satisfying to see the portrait of the Portman parents grow and change as the day progresses. Michael a successful businessman and lapsed Jew from an immigrant family seems to want to forget about mourning his mother, callously holding the family’s Bloomsday shindig on the day of her funeral. June is a WASP socialite intent on protecting her status with competitive renovations and never missing a chance to subvert her friends. The central trio sees the couple as insular, shallow, elitist, heartless, intimidating and superficial. Yet, by the end of the novel, it is clear that, as imperfect as they are, there is more to June and Michael than Stephen, Leo or Nora has the capacity to understand at this point in their lives. It is also apparent that as critical as they are of their parents, Stephen and Leo, are in many ways just as blinded by privilege as their parents. It is to Maya Lang’s credit that we can sneer at her characters, while in the next sentence feel pity and, in the next be rooting for them.
By the end of day, Stephen, Leo and Nora travel towards greater understanding and perspective on their futures. There are even, dare I say it for those of you who remember reading Dubliners with horror in high school, moments of epiphany. Don’t worry, as insightful and moving as much of this book is, it is also funny, sharp and honest in its depiction of less than perfect people just trying to put one foot in front of another.
Read it for the characters and the writing. Read it even if you’ve never even heard of James Joyce. Once you’re done, you may even, like me, be that much closer to tackling Ulysses. Certainly, picking up a copy of The Sixteenth of June and spending the evening reading it will be a satisfying way to celebrate Bloomsday 2014.
I read an ARC from the publisher, but have since bought my own copy. I plan to have Maya sign it this Wednesday, June 18 @ The Free Library of Philadelphia where she will be appearing with Kevin Birmingham, author of The Most Dangerous Book, a look at the battle to publish Ulysses and what it meant for modernism to defeat censorship. 7:30 pm and it’s free!
*The copy that say on my shelf through college and into my thirties had yellowed and moldered to the point that reading it would have provoked an allergy attack that would have only rendered the book even more inaccessible.