Robert Coover’s Briar Rose, a deconstructed retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, had just come out when I entered the novelist’s late-90s writing workshop in “experimental narratives.” The students were full of ideas: One insisted on giving public readings of cereal boxes. Another decided to write a novel from the perspective of a person lacking skin. Over the reading of an early draft, Coover held up his hand. “No,” he said, and proceeded to question the student, not unkindly, about what it would be like to go about with organs on the outside of one’s body. What would it feel like to walk up the stairs, your nerves scraping against carpet fibers? To have someone who loves you touch your lungs, your intestines?
My own project came about late in the term: a room-by-room tour of an old Victorian in Providence. Classmates wandered through the house with borrowed walkmans, listening to dubbed cassettes that offered competing first-hand accounts of a fictional family I insisted had lived there. Things fell apart quickly: rooms had closed for renovation, items I’d detailed had been removed, and a graduate student got locked in the basement for almost an hour. His cassette clicked off in the damp dark.
Coover, of course, loved the whole disaster—not for anything I had (so poorly) engineered, but for the serendipity of human error, for the triumph of wildness over artifice. Narrative, that cornerstone of traditional storytelling, might suit our psychological or artistic needs, but doesn’t it also refuse the illogic, the senseless repetition, and the dead ends that at least partly define us? The perpetual motion of plot is perhaps literature’s greatest fiction.
Hypertext, to Coover, offered a chance to challenge our most basic linear thinking. And wasn’t it time? Cervantes, Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, and James Joyce had all worked to transcend “the tyranny of the line.” Joyce’s Ulysses in particular has become the poster-child for challenging the literary status quo.
Ulysses is celebrated for so many reasons: its scope, its mastery over language, its genre-bending, its scandal. But Joyce, as a modernist or just as Joyce, understood that all art is hypertext, and that any fiction is necessarily interactive. His decision to base Ulysses on Homer’s Odyssey—itself a composite of myths from the oral tradition—and to incorporate contorted references from midwife slang to high-mass hymns was Joyce’s vote for multivocality, for what would become hypertext.
This week the world will celebrate Bloomsday, the crowded twenty-four hours of James Joyce’s intertextual epic. In the spirit of Joycean experimentation, my collaborator Christopher Boucher and I wanted to shake things up a bit with our interview of contemporary novelist Maya Lang. Lang’s The Sixteenth of June reimagines Joyce’s classic—and therefore the work of Homer, and of those who came before him—as a single day in 2004 Philadelphia. Rather than offering a linear record of a single conversation, this interactive interview asks you, the reader, to decide when and how to move behind the text: clicking on highlighted passages leads to more information about Lang’s writing process, the evolution of literary themes, and the sometimes surprising voices that influenced her novel.
Wander where you will, and if you find yourself locked in a basement, remember these words from Ulysses, from Joyce, and—in a distant sort of way—from Homer, too: Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.
Technical note: To experience the interactive features of this interview fully, please turn on your device’s audio. We recommend that you close popup windows as you finish viewing them.
From The Sixteenth of June:
A few guests wander into the room. It is that first trickle, the droplets before the downpour. The early birds are always the same, nervous types with damp armpits who arrive precisely at the stated time on the invite, standing on Delancey’s stoop at the stroke of seven. They jam their hands out before you fully open the door, so eager to please.
Nora was like that once. She’d set out to read Ulysses for her first party, treating it like homework. “Don’t bother,” Stephen told her dismissively. But Leo found it sweet, his girl trying to please his folks. She got a little awkward with it (“I’m still trying to make sense of that Oxen of the Sun episode, where the language gets so strange,” she had said to a startled June, not realizing that this was the last thing his mom wanted to discuss), but it was touching that she wanted to fit in. It was touching that she cared.
He shakes the ice in his drink. What happened to that Nora? He looks around the room, at the polite circles of small talk. What happened to the Nora who would never have been late to the party? Who would have been right by his side? The ice clinks softly, echoing his questions.
Grief is […] its own strange animal. If only Nora stayed up late crying or wanting to be held, if only she had quit her job or yelled at him or decided to camp out and watch TV, stuffing her face with potato chips—if only she had done something, lashed out, thrown a fit. Then he would have known that this was the time to see her through. How easily he could have stepped into that role, reassuring and solid, comforting her. Instead there has been nothing for him. She resumed giving lessons after a week, not wanting to let her students down. She attended rehearsals and performed. She was there in every way, except that she wasn’t.
How do you get someone back if you don’t know where she’s gone? How long do you stand on that bridge, your hand outstretched, waiting?
Excerpted from The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang Copyright © 2014. Reprinted with permission from Scribner.