A Joycean journey through Philadelphia

Posted: June 18, 2014

Maya Lang's debut novel, The Sixteenth of June, is a literary bridge between the City of Brotherly Love and James Joyce's enigmatic masterpiece Ulysses.

Set in Philadelphia, Lang's book follows a pair of brothers (and the younger brother's fiancée) through a single day, the Joycean holiday of Bloomsday, June 16, from their grandmother's funeral in the morning to their parents' extravagant Bloomsday fete in the evening, a perennial affair at the family's Delancey manse. Similarly, Ulysses follows Leopold Bloom - the character for whom the annual celebration is named - through a single day in Dublin 100 years earlier.

June isn't the only connection between Joyce and Philadelphia. The Rosenbach Museum and Library, also on Delancey Street, houses Joyce's handwritten manuscript of Ulysses and organizes Bloomsday festivities each year.

Lang will talk about her novel Wednesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St., during a joint event with Kevin Birmingham, author of The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses. The event is free and begins at 7:30 p.m. No tickets are required.

June is Lang's response to Joyce's puzzling work, her way of grappling with its complexity. "I did not like it at all when I first started to read it," she confessed. "I was in grad school at the time [at the State University of New York at Stony Brook], getting a Ph.D."

In her book, Lang said, Joyce's novel "serves as a metaphor for all those things that we're supposed to love and supposed to revere and aspire to. Even if you don't love it, you're supposed to think that it's beautiful."

Lang, 35, the recipient of a 2012 Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Foundation Scholarship in Fiction and a Glimmer Train Short Story Award finalist, said that she chose June 16, 2004, as the day on which the novel unfolds because it gave her "logistical ammunition."

"It would be one thing to have an annual Bloomsday party, but the tension in the novel comes from the fact that it's this big gala coming up against the grandmother's funeral the same day," she said.

It also seemed natural to Lang that the characters in June live in Philadelphia. She lived here for a year after graduating from Swarthmore College, where she studied English, and she was inspired by the intimacy of the city, the character of its neighborhoods and its restaurants. Throughout the novel, there are loving nods to some of her favorite Philadelphia institutions, such as Metropolitan Bakery and Primo Hoagies.

Lang explained that had her novel taken place "in a bigger city like New York or Los Angeles, that would have implications for what the story would be. A New York novel means a certain set of things."

June, like Ulysses, is driven by exterior and interior human drama. Drawing on Joyce's work and the conventions of social satire, Lang riffs on the Irish novelist's plot points. Each of Lang's 18 chapters is modeled on Ulysses' 18 Homeric "episodes," and each contains a sprinkling of interwoven excerpts from and references to Joyce's text. For example, she swaps Joyce's mention of cattle plagued by hoof-and-mouth disease with an E. coli outbreak in her novel.

Readers will leave June with a taste of its hefty Irish predecessor. For those who are already fans of Ulysses, she said, finding the references scattered in her book will be like hunting for Easter eggs.

The names of the twentysomething Portman brothers, Leopold and Stephen, Philadelphia transplants by way of New York, echo Ulysses' Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. Leo, the gregarious, sports-loving younger sibling, is an IT manager. Yale-educated Stephen, aloof and bookish, is a seventh-year grad student in literature at Penn.

Other characters' names, such as Leo's fiancée's, allude more subtly to Joycean nomenclature. Like Bloom's wife, Molly, Leo's introspective wife-to-be has a passion for singing, but she shares a first name with Joyce's spouse, Nora Barnacle.

The idea for the literary framework, including the Philadelphia setting, came intuitively out of Lang's study of Joyce's novel. Her arresting opening sentence begins with the name "Leopold" and concludes with the word "bloom." When she finished her first draft, she realized that she had unconsciously included many Joycean references.

"I like to joke that writing this novel threw me into an arranged marriage of sorts with Ulysses," Lang said.

Maya Lang, "The Sixteenth of June"

7:30 p.m., Wednesday at Free Library of Philadelphia, 19th and Vine Streets.

Admission: Free. Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org/authorevents


zmiller@phillynews.com

215-854-2301 @Zoe_M_Miller

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