And then you turn the page to the last section, "Like Beauty," which is about that future, and you start to wonder: "What the hell is Cunningham doing?" And you wonder and wonder, and the answer never comes. This section takes place in the 22nd century, it appears. Its Simon is a "simulo"—a cyborg (implanted with a Whitman chip so he spews "Song of Myself" throughout) who's been programmed to try to locate his inventor, a scientist who plans to take Simon and a group of others on a spaceship to start a new civilization. Its Catherine is Catareen, a "Nadian"—a 4-foot-tall green alien who looks like a lizard. Its Luke is a 13-year-old "Exedrol," or genetically fucked-up human whose mother took drugs while he was in her womb. They journey across an environmentally devastated America in search of Simon's maker and his spaceship, and Cunningham indulges in all the sci-fi futuristic clichés he's picked up via movies based on Philip K. Dick novels. You can make this section "work" thematically with the other two novellas, but that would only be lit-crit trickery that evades the point, which is that Cunningham simply can't do futuristic fiction; and that if he thinks a reader should have the same serious sympathy for a 4-foot-tall lizard and a cyborg because that's what Whitman would have expected of us, I say horseshit. I say Cunningham doesn't begin to portray these characters with the imaginative depth that he invests in the characters of the first two sections. I can appreciate the idea of Cunningham going outside his comfort zone with "Like Beauty," but you can be sure he won't be going there again. It's an embarrassment.
SPECIMEN DAYS BY MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM. PUBLISHED BY FARRAR, STRAUS, AND GIROUX. 320 PAGES. $25.