In more than a decade of diligent writing, Michael Cunningham had achieved relative success from a couple of novels. His third, The Hours, transformed this modest career. It won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, and he adapted it for a film, which ushered him into a life that routinely required consorting with film stars. His own star was so far in the ascendant that it would be difficult to plot an onward trajectory.
The Hours was a beautifully crafted meditation on the proximity of aesthetic creativity and mental instability, which was gently laid over three domestic situations: Virginia Woolf trying to write The Hours (which would be published as Mrs. Dalloway); a woman nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway trying to arrange a party in Aids-ravaged, 1990s Manhattan; and a 1940s housewife taking time out from failing to craft her son's special birthday cake to read Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.
The book relied on evoking feelings that would guide its delicate characters through the apparently minor hazards of their day, which could trigger a descent into profound personal traumas. The spirit of Virginia Woolf (whose work Cunningham had consumed as a teenager) infused the three interwoven narratives, giving an emotional coherence and thematic completeness to the disparate lives.
Five years later, Specimen Days revisits the same blueprint. Rather than braiding stories together, this is a triptych of three discrete novellas with common names, items and locations presided over by the avuncular figure of Walt Whitman and his unorthodox humanistic spirit. "In the Machine", the first tale, finds 12-yearold Lucas stepping into the shoes of his older brother Simon, who was fatally mashed by a machine while working in a 19th-century Manhattan foundry. Walleyed, weak of heart and with a pumpkin-shaped head, Lucas is possessed by Whitman's "Leaves of Grass", which spurts uncontrollably into his conversation. "I am large. I contain multitudes," he spouts while walking up Broadway. This "terrible gift" begins to acquire a prophetic cast as Lucas pursues Catherine, his brother's louche fiancée and a seamstress by day, determined to save her from the siren call of the lethal machines.
Vulnerable lunatic or child savant? Lucas's awkward, insistent voice and deranged (or inspired) course of action lead to a hellish denouement, which segues neatly into the contemporary insanity of the second novella.
"The Children's Crusade" trades a Victorian gothic style for a modem thriller. Cat sits in a depressing police office listening to variously unhinged callers in case they are a genuine terrorist. She misses one, and a businessman is detonated by a suicide bomber who embraces him in a hug before igniting; forensics establish that it was a child, with no known history. The bomber's "brother" keeps calling Cat, quoting lines from Whitman. The chase to find him before he kills himself leads to a Manhattan slum tenement. Cat's dialogue with this young bomber precedes an unexpectedly liberating death, a result which thematically prepares for Cunningham's third piece.
Set 150 years in the future, "Like Beauty" follows the android Simon on his illicit flight from theme-park Manhattan, where his job is to act as a mugger for tourists paying to be roughed up in Central Park. Simon's aim is to reach his creator in Denver, and his flight is assisted by Cataleen, a lizard-like creature who had arrived on Earth from Nadia, fleeing the punishing brutality of a feudal society. Simon, mostly for fun, it seems, has been implanted with a Whitman chip that might have given his circuitry a grasp of morality and, like Lucas centuries before, struggles to keep lines from "Leaves of Grass" out of his speech.
While Victorian gothic and thriller genres respond well to Cunningham's bright style, this futuristic narrative flounders.
Words assume implausible evolutions ("dermaslough", for instance, appears to be just a shower) and there is little imaginative rendering on the stock Orwellian surveillance state to distinguish this novella from the most routine dystopic sci-fi.
What Cunningham seeks to elucidate, however, is far less obvious. Whitman's gossipy journal, "Specimen Days in America", which lends Cunningham his title, is replete with the carnage of the civil war. In Cunningham's texts, death is proffered as an ecstatic release, citing Whitman's exuberant embrace of all things (including death) in an unfettered celebration of existence.
Throughout The Hours, suicide hovers as a comprehensible ultimate solution to Woolf's fragile mental equilibrium. Specimen Days, congested by Whitman's paradoxical, ecstatic utterances, never manages to cohere its tangle of ideas about mortality, spirituality, crushing work or liberty. It feels much more contrived and lacks the literary clarity and elegance of Cunningham's much-applauded salon style.
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