A Drawn-out, Unbelievable Hours
Photo by Richard PhibbsWhen Michael Cunningham published TheHoursin 1998, he found himself thrust into the top rank of American novelists. It was only Cunningham's third novel, but it hauled off a Pulitzer Prize and was made into an affecting, Oscar-winning film. Stylistically low-key—gentle, humanistic, dryly poetic, precise and deliberate yet often genuflecting toward the unutterable—The Hourswas also emotionally audacious, a big statement about strangulated longings—the longing for romantic and familial love, the longing to create and live in art, the longing to die—and the devastating battleground of hearts where such longings clash. Furthermore, it was ballsy, daring to place at its center that most ethereal and difficult of personalities, and that most iconic of modernists, Virginia Woolf, and making even Woolf's avid followers come away knowing Cunningham had breathed a new spirit into her life and work.
At first glance, SpecimenDaysseems to adopt too readily the formula that made TheHoursso potent a fiction. Like TheHours, SpecimenDaysrevolves around the spirit of a writer—in this case, Walt Whitman—and like that earlier novel, it takes the form of a historical triptych—three stories whose themes and symbolism mirror each other, and whose characters, often sharing the same name but placed in different time periods, seem like reincarnations of one another. Unlike TheHours, however, whose different stories are tightly woven and even feature the same characters at different points in their lives (like the suicidal poet Richard), the three stories of SpecimenDayscan be read as separate 100-page novellas, and probably should be, because the first two are brilliant, while the third is a disaster.
The first novella, entitled "In the Machine," takes place in Whitman's lifetime, in the opening years of the Industrial Revolution, and in lower Manhattan. It's told from the point of view of a young lad, Lucas, "the changeling child, goblin-faced, with frail heart and mismatched eyes," who is obsessed by what he calls "the book"—Whitman's LeavesofGrass—obsessed by its transcendental vision, where life and death, self and other, grass and machine partake of each other in a dynamic universal harmony no Westerner had yet been able to conceive. Lucas speaks Whitman in true transcendental fashion—he utters the poetry subconsciously, channeling Whitman as if they shared the same soul (which, to Whitman, they do: "For every atom that belongs to me as good belongs to you"). But Cunningham wisely places Lucas in a milieu virtually untranscendentalizable—a 19th-century factory—where Lucas works a dangerous machine that just days before had killed his brother Simon. Mourning Simon's death, hopelessly in love with the woman, Catherine, whom Simon had planned to marry, and taking his meager earnings home to his mother and father, both of whom are near death themselves, Lucas, in a state of beautifully visionary grief, begins to believe that his machine is talking to him. Soon all the machines around him—Catherine's sewing machine, the machine that helps his father breathe, his mother's music box—seem to him to have been inhabited by ghosts of the dead urging him, Catherine, everyone to come on over to the Other Side with them. A chance encounter with Whitman leads him to an epiphany: "There came a wave, a wind, that recognized him, that did not love him or hate him. He felt what he knew as the rising of the self, the shifting innerness that yearned and feared, that was more familiar to him than anything could ever be. He knew that an answering substance gathered around him, emanating from the trees and the stars." Attuned to this "answering substance," and bent on saving Catherine from the seductive death voice of the machines, he performs an act of violent self-sacrifice that indeed ends up saving Catherine and her unborn child from death. It's a powerful parable pitting Whitman's visionary gleam against the gathering forces of industrialism, and still finds the Transcendental I a force to be reckoned with.
Not so in the second novella, "The Children's Crusade," a post-9/11 story where Whitman's yin-and-yang vision of life and death has curdled into apocalyptic nihilism. Here the point of view switches to the Catherine character, here known as Cat, a black forensic psychologist working for the NYPD who takes calls from crazies threatening terrorist acts. A divorcee who's weathered the death of her only son, Luke, years ago and is currently making a go of a relationship with a young, rich Wall Street maven named Simon who deals in "futures," Cat is probably the most vivid character in the novel, cementing Cunningham's reputation as a master at portraying contemporary urban women. This section of the novel shows Cunningham at his most comfortable, just as the "contemporary" section of TheHours, about Clarissa Vaughn, seemed the least strained and worked-over part of that novel. "The Children's Crusade" has a bit of the thriller about it, since Cat and her cohorts are trying to find out who is behind a series of child suicide bombers, all of whom are filled with a twisted view of Whitman—but it's more a brilliant Polaroid of contemporary NYC: not just its paranoia but its marvelous energy, its stupefying self-regard, its manic speech, its self-conscious acting out of a human comedy turning darker and darker and Whitman's vision becoming harder and harder to fathom. Plus there's a speech about the State of our Union on page 171 that should be required reading for anybody concerned about an American future.
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 clichs 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.
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