Bloomsday, reimagined in Philly

Maya Lang is the author of "The Sixteenth of June" (Scriber). (Photo copyright Renata Steiner)
Maya Lang is the author of “The Sixteenth of June” (Scriber). (Photo copyright Renata Steiner)

As all fans of James Joyce know, June 16 is Bloomsday — the day Leopold Bloom wanders around Dublin in “Ulysses.” In Washington, as in many cities around the world, people will celebrate with readings and performances of the 20th-century’s greatest novel.

But how many people have actually read Joyce’s demanding classic — I mean all quarter of a million words, not just Molly’s final, enthusiastic “Yes”?

That question occurred me to when I got a copy of Maya Lang’s new novel, “The Sixteenth of June” (Scribner). It’s a modern-day social satire about a family in Philadelphia. It takes place in a single day involving a funeral and an annual Bloomsday party.

Literary fiction is a tough sell. Literary fiction inspired by James Joyce possibly more so. Curious, I asked her a few questions.

(Courtesy of Scriber)
(Courtesy of Scriber)

Associating your debut novel on the greatest novel in English literature sounds awfully daring, no? 

Daring, yes. The first sentence of the novel came to me out of the blue when I was grappling with “Ulysses.” Only later did I realize its first word was “Leopold,” its last, “bloom.” I saw that sentence as an invitation to go down the rabbit hole of Joyce — a dare, if you will. I resisted it for a while — who was I to write a novel about a revered classic? — but the characters took root. I told myself I wasn’t writing a novel; I simply wanted to know what would happen to the three people stuck in my head. Once it was clear that I had a first draft filled with “Ulysses” references, I decided to embrace the challenge and model each chapter around a “Ulysses” episode, complete with excerpted lines.

Everybody knows of “Ulysses,” but so few people actually read it. What do you make of that paradox? 

Yes! Exactly! This paradox is the crux of my novel. “Ulysses” brings to mind that great Groucho Marx line about not wanting to be in a club that would have you as a member. Joyce built the ultimate exclusive club that no one can get into — so everyone wants to claim they have. I wanted “The Sixteenth of June” to work on three levels: for those who haven’t read “Ulysses,” for its devotees, and on a meta-level about the lore surrounding it. I see “Ulysses” as a metaphor for all those things we are told we “should” revere, even if our lived experience is different. My characters, three twentysomethings, grapple with the reality of what they feel versus what they think they’re supposed to feel. This discrepancy, between reality and expectations, describes adulthood. It’s also what it feels like to first read Joyce. There’s the weight you want to feel, what you hoped you’d feel, and then there is your actual, sometimes disappointing self. Our idealized selves are Joyce-loving, thriving, successful, skinny, marrying, child-bearing people. Our actual selves are a whole other matter.

Tell me about your first experience with “Ulysses.”

I first attempted “Ulysses” in grad school. I went into it eagerly, ready to love it, and was immediately affronted by Joyce’s arrogance. His famous boast that “Ulysses” would “keep the professors guessing for centuries” is clear from the outset. You feel Joyce’s desire to confound. I thought about all the people I’d ever met who raved about “Ulysses” as their favorite novel of all time. I wondered if they’d even read it.

You have a PhD in comparative lit. From your perspective as a scholar of world literature, what makes “Ulysses” so great?

Writing this novel threw me into an arranged marriage of sorts with “Ulysses.” I didn’t like it at first but have grown to love it. It’s rare to have a relationship like that with a novel, one that unfolds over time. The great joy of “Ulysses” is that it speaks to you at different points in your life. It also continues to surprise. I find something new each time I turn to it. That said, I have great sympathy for people who can’t stand Joyce — hence the novel’s dedication to all the people who have never read him.

What are your plans for June 16?

Happily, I’ll be celebrating Bloomsday at the Strand Bookstore in New York City, where I’ll be in conversation with author David Gilbert.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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