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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, June 7th, 2005


 

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 Whitman.

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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