Specimen Days: A Novel
by Michael Cunningham
A review by Joseph O'Neill
Like its predecessor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The
Hours, Michael Cunningham's fifth novel consists of three stories set in three
different epochs. Also like The Hours, which reworked Virginia Woolf, this
narrative triplex is built on a bookish foundation: the poetry and ontology of
Walt Whitman. The poet appears in person in the first story, a supernatural tale
about a malformed, Whitman-reciting thirteen-year-old and his family, whose members
are all horribly transmogrified, physically and spiritually, by the grotesque
nature of factory work. The second is a detective story of post-9/11 New York,
in which a woman police officer hunts down children who have smoked too much Leaves
of Grass, as it were, and turned into suicide bombers. The third, set in a
"postmeltdown" America of the future, tells of a humanoid's escape,
in the company of an extraterrestrial, from sinister "Old New York"
-- a humanoid who, for thematic reasons, is given to involuntary fits of quoting
This clanking trope points up a problem with the book. However vertiginous
Cunningham's preoccupations may be -- they include the essential oneness of
astral and animal and man-made beings (Whitman: "Every atom belonging to
me as good belongs to you"); the mysteries of reincarnation or re-embodiment
(characters, names, and identities drift loosely from one tale to another);
the frightening automation of humanity -- they are grounded in a book that is
marred by the mechanization it decries. The plots often seem made, not begotten;
each, finally, is reduced to melodrama.
Michael Cunningham is one of the most humane and moving writers we have; but
the toiling quality of Specimen Days suggests that (unlike, say, David
Mitchell) he may lack the naturally impassioned formalism required to make a
multi-genre novel come truly to life.
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