James Joyce’s Ulysses is a novel that is both highly celebrated and much hated. Termed “diffuse” and “pretentious” by the likes of Virginia Woolf, the dense book is the subject of much debate within the literary community, with some dismissing it and others embracing it (but very few fully understanding it). Either way, it’s inarguable that Ulysses has made an indelible cultural mark since its publication in 1922. And the release of Maya Lang’s debut novel, The Sixteenth of June, provides more evidence of its lasting influence.
Just as in Ulysses, the main story within The Sixteenth of June takes place over just one day and comprises death, sex, drunkenness and scatology. The three main characters are Leopold and Stephen Portman (brothers named by their parents after the two chief male protagonists in Ulysses) and Nora, Stephen’s best friend and Leopold’s fiancée. Stephen and Leopold come from a family firmly entrenched in the 1 percent, while Nora’s background is modest. Like Leopold’s wife, Molly Bloom, Nora (whom Lang gives the name of Joyce’s real-life wife) is a talented opera singer. But she’s recently abandoned her aspirations as she grieves the death of her mother. Meanwhile, the funeral of Leo and Stephen’s grandmother is the first event bringing the three together on the 16th of June 2004. The second: the centennial Bloomsday bash thrown by Leo and Stephen’s parents, which celebrates the anniversary of the day depicted in Ulysses.
The story is a love triangle of sorts: Stephen, the brooding academic, thinks Nora is too good for Leo, a simple frat-boy type who loves his corporate job and just wants to settle in the suburbs and start breeding. Nora, mourning her mother’s loss in a self-destructive manner, is so numb she doesn’t know what she wants. Much will be revealed by the end of this day, of course, although not much actually happens (another nod to its inspiration).
While Lang’s prose displays real talent, the characters don’t leave a strong impression, and it all feels a bit like an academic exercise rather than a story that can stand strongly on its own. The reader needn’t be familiar with Ulysses to appreciate this book, but recognizing the references would likely make it more entertaining for some.