Experimental, Yet Conventional

Walt Whitman’s omnipresence fails to inspire Michael Cunningham’s “Specimen Days”

I thought it would be hard coming to Michael Cunningham’s “Specimen Days” this late. Author of the deservedly praised and popular “The Hours,” for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Cunningham published his latest novel in June but it has not attracted the volume of criticism I expected. The book is a departure from his usual character-driven studies, but also an experiment, and a challenge to what is considered “literary fiction.” Perhaps the critical reticence results from uncertainty as to how to greet this new Cunningham work.

Despite its experimental nature, “Specimen Days” is conventionally arranged—three novellas each revolving around a trio of New Yorkers. Presiding over each, endowing them with shape and connection is the poetry and life of Walt Whitman. The structure is similar to “The Hours.” As in that book, the three narratives are separated by many years, but linked with parallel events and themes that resonate into a greater whole.

Unfortunately, the similarities end there. “The Hours” was a daring project. To attempt to narrate the life and death of Virginia Woolf takes a writer confident in his abilities. A single error describing Woolf’s life or her recorded thoughts, much less the details of early 20th century existence would have sent the entire house crashing. And linking Woolf with two other characters unrelated to her upped the danger. But Cunningham found in Woolf a character that suited his precise, effervescent style, and he had done his research.

The three stories in “The Hours” were linked only through Woolf’s novel and the act of suicide—the connections were the universal ones of the human condition. “Specimen Days” eschews the subtle for more obvious connections. The three stories proceed in a linear fashion, the next set about 150 years ahead of the one before, and peopled by characters that can be viewed as reincarnated versions of their earlier selves.

The first novella, “In the Machine” describes Whitman’s Manhattan with its gaslights, factories, wretched poor, and indigent hospitals. But Cunningham does not get us into the mind of Walt. Instead we perceive the world through Lucas, a deformed 12-year old whose obsession with Whitman’s volume, “Leaves of Grass” causes him to spout lines of the man’s poetry like a Tourette’s sufferer. Lucas’s other obsession is his dead brother Simon’s fiancée, Catherine. Although Cunningham eventually has Lucas bump into Whitman about halfway through, this Whitman resembles a jolly, psychedelic Santa Claus, rather than the rollicking, visionary poet who forever transformed written verse.

“The Children’s Crusade,” the middle portion, takes place in the contemporary world. Here Cunningham eschews his usual investigation of quiet lives to take on a page-turner of a plot with Cat, a black New York police investigator, who is dating a white futures trader named Simon and finds herself wrapped up in a terrorist conspiracy that uses boys as suicide bombers. One bomber is, of course, named Luke.

The novel’s final third, “Like Beauty,” although set 150 years in the future, when Manhattan has become a giant interactive tourist park that visitors pay for “authentic” New York experiences such as getting mugged or sexually assaulted, is the most prosaic section. This is a world of vat-grown humans, saurian extraterrestrial refugees, and a defunct government replaced by corporations. The story is interesting enough. Simon, a simulo, or artificial human, escapes from the New York theme park in search of his creator with the female alien Catareen. Their adventures take them across post-Apocalyptic America where they find Luke hiding out among a militant Christian sect.

While it might seem innovative to some, Cunningham is obviously out of his element. Either he hasn’t read enough science-fiction, or has trouble innovating within the genre, for he retreads ground long ago covered by authors such as Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Maureen F. McHugh, and Samuel Delany, not to mention Margaret Atwood—a writer whose more fantastic speculation is shelved alongside Cunningham rather than consigned to the science fiction ghetto.

Even those who never read science fiction will find Cunningham’s 22nd century milieu unimaginative, the details now familiar from countless movies and television commercials. Curious readers should pick up “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell, published about a year before “Specimen Days.” It is what Cunningham’s book could have been if better written. The similarities are so uncanny I would have said Cunningham had been inspired by it if “Specimen Days” had come out a little later.

This is not to say “Specimen Days” fails. This is Michael Cunningham after all. He writes quick, engaging sentences that perfectly capture the moods of his characters. For example, Cat, desperate for a few moments peace amid the chaos of bombings in Manhattan, walks 15 blocks to work so she could be “herself but unhaunted and unharmed, untutored in the hidden dangers, a woman with a job and a child and the regular array of difficulties, the questions of rent and groceries. It seemed, as she walked, an unimaginable happiness.”

And a less talented writer could never have imbued this weird cast—two of whom are not even human—with enough humanity to make us care about them. I guarantee most readers will find their individual stories compelling.

But it is also obvious there is a talented author working hard to keep things together. Whitman’s presence never seems essential the way Woolf was to “The Hours.” The parallels Cunningham sets up in “Specimen Days” seem contrived rather than the story’s natural outgrowth. An example is the china bowl that appears in each section. Another is Luke “the changeling child, goblin faced, with frail heart and mismatched eyes” who shows up in the same deformed body. The reader knows, expects, and is ultimately unimpressed.

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