An uneven debut has fun with James Joyce while packing years of a family’s life into a single day.
Taking its title from the date on which Joyce set Ulysses, Lang’s novel concerns the Portman family of Philadelphia on the 2004 centennial of what’s known as Bloomsday. Brothers Stephen and Leopold, with the latter’s fiancee, Nora, prepare for the funeral of Grandma Hannah Portman, which takes place only hours before the annual Bloomsday party thrown by the brothers’ parents. Nora recalls her mother’s funeral a year earlier following a long battle with cancer: “She and her mom had been stranded on an island, the tropic of cancer with its thickets of growth.” Lang works disease, aging, death, sibling friction and fraying love into the novel’s brief time frame mainly through the wandering thoughts of the three younger characters. The richest moments stem from Stephen’s friendship with Nora and his empathy with Hannah, formed through weekly visits to her retirement home. By contrast, the parents are thinly drawn, almost types: the wealthy former fund manager and the socialite seeking a good cause. It’s uncertain if either has ever read Ulysses through, which raises the fundamental question of why such people would name their sons for the novel’s two heroes and honor a notoriously obscure book every year. Lang’s numerous allusions to Joyce’s epic may amuse those in the know, but they don’t often enhance the story. She can draw a sharp image—“another old-timer, a fluff of white hair over a stick of a body, like a Q-tip”—yet the writing is dotted with clichés or oddities, such as: “Their friendship bobs between them like a current, keeping Leo at bay.” That’s a lot of water.
A promising writer gives the love triangle an engaging workout under challenging constraints.