Here’s a common literary conundrum: who much should you assume your readers know going into your novel? Explain too much, you risk condescending; explain too little, you risk being esoteric and possibly confusing. With small aspects of a book, it’s all about deciding what’s necessary information. If a certain piece of information is absolutely vital, then err on the side of explicitness. If not — if, say, the information is merely for thematic or subtextual reasons — then depending on a reader’s knowledge (or their inquisitiveness to go and look it up) is probably best.
But what if your entire book is based on another one? What if a certain piece of information (in the cases of these books, a writer or a specific novel) is foundational to your text? How, then, should you proceed? Should you explain the referenced work so that those unfamiliar with it can enjoy your book? Or should you simply accept that some readers will fall behind and end up befuddled? It’s a tricky enterprise, and since there are as many ways to pay homage to earlier literature as there are ways to create new literature, I thought it would be useful to see how some contemporary writers approach this finicky issue.
Let’s get right into some examples. The most straightforward way to pay homage to another writer is to simply write them into the narrative. Joyce Carol Oates’s story collection Wild Nights! uses the voices of famous authors on their final days. In “Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House,” Poe keeps a diary tracking his new post as “Keeper of the Light” for a lighthouse in Viña de Mar. His first entry is dated October 7, 1849, which was the date of Poe’s death (hence the title). Oates has a lot of fun playing with both Poe’s style and his Gothic genre. On his second day, Poe wakes from “fitful” sleep that seems to “cast off totally the morbid hallucination, or delusion that, on a rain-lashed street in a city not familiar to me, I slipped, fell, cracked my head upon sharp paving stones, and died.” Oates captures the language of Poe, as well as his ceaseless morbidity. Would readers unfamiliar with Poe’s biography recognize this description of Poe’s actual death in Baltimore? Or will they miss the hint? Will it matter if a reader does not know that “The Light-House” was the last piece of fiction the real Poe was writing before his death? And that Oates here even quotes from it? Does any of this really matter? Oates, consummate (and unbelievably prolific) storyteller that she is, makes the narrative compelling even for the uninitiated, but it’s interesting to consider how knowing certain things will change the experience of reading the story. Those who know something about Poe will instantly spot the date of his death and know that this is the tale of some sort of afterlife, while those who don’t know Poe will figure it out as the story unfolds. Which is the better experience? Who is reading the story in the right way?
Of course, there are plenty of historical novels that feature authors as characters, but those aren’t the kind I’m interested in here. I’m more interested in those works that aim to riff or play with past fiction, the kinds that are unafraid to run with the ideas of other writers, too, not merely their biographies.
Michael Cunningham wrote two books that take as their inspiration other writers’ works. His Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours examines Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway via three women engaged with Woolf’s novel in different ways: composing it, reading it, living it. But it’s Cunningham’s lesser-known Specimen Days that I’m interested in here, because it explores its foundational text in such unusual ways. Though its title is taken specifically from Walt Whitman’s book of autobiographical essays and sketches, Cunningham’s novel could be said to take Whitman himself as its foundational text––Specimen Days celebrates Whitman’s spirit as much as any individual work, though obviously Leaves of Grass is the primary model. The novel is really three thematically linked novellas, each focusing on a man, a woman, and a young man. Whitman’s presence pervades the stories, yet he remains elusive. In the first section, “In the Machine,” Lucas, the boy, refers to the great poet as “Walt,” like a close friend. Set in the late 19th century, “In the Machine” recounts a fire at the Mannahatta Company (named, of course, after a poem of Whitman’s), a factory near Washington Square. As the blaze ravages the building and innocent workers leap from windows to escape the flame, Lucas thinks he sees something: “Was that Walt, far off, among the others, Walt with his expression of astonished hunger for everything that could occur?”
“The Children’s Crusade,” the second piece, features a detective in 21st-century New York investigating a series of terrorist bombs instigated by an old woman who quotes Whitman. “What are you saying, exactly?” the detective asks the woman, who replies, “Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world.” To which the detective says: “You know your Whitman.” Her minion of boys, who call her Walt, since she believes so much in the beauty of the world as Whitman wrote it:
To someone a hundred years ago, as recently as that, this world would seem like heaven itself. We can fly. Our teeth don’t rot. Our children aren’t a little feverish one moment and dead the next. There’s no dung in the milk. There’s milk, as much as we want. The church can’t roast us alive over minor differences of opinion. The elders can’t stone us to death because we might have committed adultery. Our crops never fail. We can eat raw fish in the middle of the desert, if we want to. And look at us. We’re so obese we need bigger cemetery plots. Our ten-year-olds are doing heroin, or they’re murdering eight-year-olds, or both. We’re getting divorced faster than we’re getting married. Everything we eat has to be sealed because if it wasn’t, somebody would put poison in it, and if they couldn’t get poison, they’d put pins in it. A tenth of us are in jail, and we can’t build new ones fast enough. We’re bombing other countries simply because they make us nervous, and most of us not only couldn’t find those countries on a map, we couldn’t tell you which continent they’re on. Traces of the fire retardant we put in upholstery and carpeting are starting to turn up in women’s breast milk. So tell me. Would you say this is working out? Does this seem to you like a story that wants to continue?
A far cry from the America Whitman described, isn’t it? (Though the world of the first story, Whitman’s world, serves to considerably undermine this nostalgic, revisionist view.) That Whitman would be used as motivation for terrorism seems plausible here. Cunningham engages with Whitman’s texts (and Whitman-as-text) in as many ways as he can: what did Whitman’s poetry mean to those who were alive when he wrote it, who could witness the same New York depicted in the pages of Leaves of Grass? What does Whitman’s America say about our America now? What does all that suggest about the future (which is dealt with in the final story, “Like Beauty,” set in New York 150 years from now)?
I read Specimen Days concurrently with Leaves of Grass, which at the time I was reading for a class. It was a wonderful pairing: I grappled with Whitman’s absorbing poetry at the same time I got to read a novelist do the same thing. Cunningham doesn’t expect you to have read Whitman, as he provides quotes and even some analysis along the way, but I would wager that my experience was greatly enhanced by my immediate knowledge of Whitman’s writing. For no matter how much shorthand Cunningham provides, Whitman defies summary. Leaves of Grass enfolds you with its endless lists and keen observations and joyous optimism. One can read Specimen Days and “get” Whitman’s place in it without having read a word of his poetry, but to feel it, to attach more philosophical and emotional resonance to the book’s themes, to understand its “multitudes,” you need Whitman himself.
Memories of those books ran through my mind as I read Maya Lang’s debut novel The Sixteenth of June, which has the rare claim of being a book based on a book that’s based on another book. The title date is, of course, Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses is set. It is also the date fans of Joyce’s modernist epic come together for an annual celebration. The Sixteenth of June features such a party, but not just any Bloomsday, but the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday. The party is thrown by the Portmans, a wealthy couple in Philadelphia. Their two sons, Stephen and Leopold, are name after Ulysses’s protagonists, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Leo, the younger son, is engaged to a woman name Nora, like Joyce’s wife. Long’s novel has the same number of chapters as Ulysses and employs many of the same techniques. It is, in other words, wholly dependent on Joyce’s novel.
Ulysses, famously, is based on Homer’s The Odyssey. The idea was to take one of literature’s greatest epics and pare it down to a single day of a human life. The grand in the ordinary. But Joyce goes so much further: he meticulously crafted Ulysses to mirror Homer’s tale of Odysseus and his journey home. He famously said of the book, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” An egotistical claim, to be sure, but one that has yet to be disproved––here I am today, still writing about this goddamn book. In a letter to his Aunt Josephine, Joyce suggested that she read The Odyssey first. “Then buy at once,” he continues, “the Adventures of Ulysses (which is Homer’s story told in simple English and much abbreviated) by Charles Lamb…Then have a try at Ulysses again.” Joyce, then, expected his readers to not only enter his book having already read The Odyssey, but he also wanted them to pore over the text to decipher its innumerable mysteries.
Maya Lang, in The Sixteenth of June, expects no such thing. Her novel is a lovely, light-on-its-feet production, a flowing narrative of young people trying to find their way. Twenty-somethings Leo and Nora have reached an impasse in their relationship: engaged with no wedding date, in love but static, together but growing apart. Leo’s brother Stephen, also Nora’s best friend, plods along at grad school, seven years into his dissertation. Their day begins with the funeral of their grandmother, a woman the family had mostly forgotten about, relegated as she was to a nursing home (“And nursing home is a misnomer,” their father says, “It’s a social living community for seniors”). But before she died, Stephen had begun to pay visits to her, unbeknownst to the rest of the Portman clan. When Stephen’s secret is exposed, questions abound about his intentions. Michael and June Portman, the parents, decide to hold their Bloomsday centennial despite the funeral happening on the same day, a decision that irks Stephen considerably.
One needn’t have read James Joyce to understand this kind of family dynamic. In fact, for the first 50 pages or so I wondered if maybe intimate knowledge of Ulysses might hinder my enjoyment of Lang’s book. I couldn’t help but trace Joyce’s influence on every page, even occasionally spotting some passages lifted directly from Ulysses, as in the introduction of Stephen: “Stephen fills the white bowl with hot water. He cups the bowl in his hands and carries it to his desk, where a mirror and razor lay crossed.” This echoes the famous opening of Ulysses, which goes: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.” A bit later, Leo recalls his time in London, where “[there] was no freak-out about cholesterol, fat. They ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls,” which Leopold Bloom also did in the beginning of his day. Other references aren’t direct quotes: as Stephen contemplates his life, he considers:
How much easier to just go along and agree. To watch the trajectory of the ball long ago set in motion and see where it will land, as though you are not the product of its outcome. To watch as though you have no hand in your own life. As though the only words we have available to us were written long ago in a blue book. As though we cannot make our own stories, decide our own fates.
Ulysses, when it was first published by Shakespeare and Company in 1922, featured a blue cover with white lettering, so people eventually referred to it surreptitiously as “the blue book.” Lang is having a bit of funny in this pensive moment: Stephen, as a character, can’t make his own story; he’s stuck in someone else’s.
Strange that my knowledge of Ulysses actually distracted me from a story predicated on it. Typically, I would imagine the opposite being the case. But luckily Lang’s wonderfully engaging prose and her believable characters overtook me, and soon I forgot to look for allusions and just enjoyed the novel.
One of the most enjoyable things here is the way in which Lang traces her characters’ thoughts. Leo, Stephen and Nora alternate the point of view, and Lang settles herself comfortably in their skin, a fitting technique for a predecessor of Joyce, who mastered free indirect discourse better than maybe any other modernist except for Virginia Woolf. But the spark that makes Lang’s methodology unique in its own right is the way her characters think about the things they might have said to someone. Repeatedly, Leo and company imagine conversations that did not happened, almost as much as we’re given conversations that actually did happen. This is not unlike the “double stream of consciousness” that Morris Ernst emphasized when he defended Ulysses in court in 1933, (“Your honor,” Ernst said in court, “while arguing this case I thought I was intent only on the book, but frankly, while pleading before you, I’ve also been thinking about that ring around your tie, how your gown does not fit too well on your shoulders and the picture of John Marshall behind your bench.”) except here it is as if Lang’s characters, like all of us, are trying to live out a hypothetical other life for themselves, to experiment privately with a life that could have lead but ultimately did not. And sometimes these unspoken words contain within them the thing most necessary to say: Leo wishes he could ask Nora “what it feels like when she pulls” her hair, a condition known as trichotillomania that has afflicted Nora since her mother’s death; Nora wishes to confront Leo’s mother June for her haughty and cruel condescension; and Stephen dwells on the things he would have said to Nora about her relationship with Leo, which Stephen thinks has hindered her development as a person and artist.
This kind of thinking takes up much of our lives. We regret the things we said as well as the things we didn’t say, and moreover, we think about those things all the time, a constant process of rewinding and rewatching and dreaming of rewriting. But, as Joyce points out, “It’s always flowing in a stream, never the same, which in the stream of life we trace. Because life is a stream.” We can only move forward, but that doesn’t mean our minds are not stuck in the past.
Most of the characters in The Sixteen of June either don’t like Ulysses or haven’t read it (or, often, they attempted it and stopped). Stephen is even skeptical that his parents, the ones throwing the party, don’t even really like Ulysses: “I sometimes think,” he says, “they’re more interested in what Ulysses says about them than what it actually says. Our truest relationship with books is private. I love Gatsby. I love Mrs. Dalloway. But I would never throw a party for them. A party ends up celebrating not the book but its title.” Nora never got through and it seems that Leo never even tried. This accurately reflects contemporary attitudes of young people toward Ulysses. To them, it is not “the great repository of everything,” as one character puts it, but a pretentious, irritatingly confounding book, with few rewards and annoying champions (“His work is Everest,” the same character says, “No one climbs Everest and says nothing of it!”). Yet here they are, these young people, caught in a story, a world inescapably shaped by Joyce, for no matter what you think of his most notorious novel, it has influenced you, it has defined and refined your ideas of literature, art, obscenity, human thought––even if you disagree, even if you are indifferent.
Homage is a way of acknowledging our forbearers, to celebrate where we came from by updating the past, calling back to it, poking fun at it, challenging it, embracing it, adoring it. Oates goes at it directly, Cunningham a little more abstractly, and Lang indirectly and directly. There is no right way to pay homage any more than there is a right way to love something. And asking yourself how much information you should expect your readers to know is ultimately fruitless. They’ll come into your book with so much more baggage than a knowledge of or respect for a given writer or novel. They bring their pasts into it, too, with all its force and unaware influence. What they know doesn’t matter, because the division between a reader who isn’t familiar vs. a reader who is amounts to a false dichotomy. There is actually an infinite number of ways to experience a story, and no writer can predict them all. Oates and Cunningham couldn’t foresee how much their readers know, just as they couldn’t foresee anything about them. Lang doesn’t know if you’ve read Ulysses; probably she doesn’t care. She wants you to feel her characters think and live (and think about living); the Ulysses stuff reinforces many of the themes, functions as a big blueprint, and serves as the occasion of the novel’s central set piece, but its nuances are not crucial the work as a whole. So if you’re paying homage to someone, to something, to anything, just write it the way you love it––passion is more important than knowledge, anyway.