Specimen Days: A Novel
by Michael Cunningham
Same Old, Same Old
A review by Deborah Friedell
Walt Whitman pronounced his autobiography, Specimen Days, to be "the most
wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed." Do the adjectives fit Michael
Cunningham's new book, also titled Specimen Days? Fragmentary it certainly
is. The book is pointedly subtitled "a novel," but it is really three distinct
novellas, set approximately a hundred years apart, in the styles of a Victorian
ghost story, a contemporary police procedural, and a futuristic science-fiction
episode. As a gesture toward formal unification, each contains a man (or android)
called Simon, a boy called Lucas or Luke, and a woman (or alien female) called
Catherine, Cat, or Catareen. Each takes place in Manhattan, and metropolitan particulars
-- a bowl, a music box, Central Park's Bethesda Fountain -- float through all
three. The guiding spirit is, ostensibly, Whitman, whose verse is recited on nearly
every page of the book and who makes an appearance in the first novella. The novel's
epigraph, from Whitman's invocation to the Muse in Leaves of Grass, becomes
Cunningham's anthem: "truly new ways and days receive, surround you/ ....And yet
the same old human race, the same within, without."
Whitman famously aimed to be a poet of inclusion -- "I have offer'd my style to everyone" -- but there is little evidence of his spontaneity, what the poet also called his "audacity," in Cunningham's straitlaced prose, which the novelist here constricts to the conventions of genre literature. (A sentence chosen almost at random from the police procedural: "Pete stopped en route in the lunchroom for a cup of late-day, bottom-of-the-pot coffee sludge, with four Equals." We have read this many times before.) Whitman's main influence on this novel is revealed, rather, in the snippets of poems that Cunningham imports wholesale into his characters' mouths. They are peculiarly obsessed with Whitman, spouting him constantly and involuntarily, like Tourette's victims: "He hadn't meant to speak as [Whitman]. He never did, but when he was excited he couldn't help himself." The slightest stimulus can force them to a bardic declamation. When one character derides a piece of junk, another is quick to reply that "What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me." A friend is greeted, "I celebrate myself, and what I assume you shall assume. How was your night?"
In the most successful of the novellas, the nineteenth-century ghost story, the Whitmania seems the least strained. In the weeks following the death of his brother Simon in a grisly factory accident, Lucas finds succor in Whitman's verses: "All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,/And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier." When Lucas takes Simon's place in the factory, Whitman's stories of laborers seem designed for him (although it is, of course, the other way around). But in the other stories, characters turn almost unfathomably to the poet, offering explanations that never quite convince. In the science-fiction plot, an android named Simon has a malfunctioning "poetry chip." In the police thriller, a child, who comes to be called Luke, has been brainwashed by a Whitman-venerating terrorist cell. He recites Whitman because -- like an android -- "a concept trips a wire, and he's got the line, but he hasn't got the circuitry to make sense of it. He's like a vessel for someone else's wishes." This "someone," of course, is Cunningham himself. He has grafted Whitman's verses onto his characters, but not sufficiently tightly, and the grafting shows.
Insofar as novelists have always written about real people, stuffing other people's ideas and conversation into their texts, perhaps no writer is immune to charges of freeloading. Yet writers who take as their subject the work of other writers, who fill their novels with already published words, seem to be working in a new genre. This type of fiction is booming, with other recent examples including novels and plays about Christopher Marlowe, A.E. Housman, C.S. Lewis, Henry James, and Sylvia Plath. In constructing their fictions (or demi-fictions), writers blend their own words with those of their subjects -- parasitically or reverentially, depending on your point of view. The most famous example of this genre is Cunningham's previous novel, The Hours, which became a best-seller, received a Pulitzer, and was turned into a movie that won Nicole Kidman an Academy Award for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf. One of its narrative strands -- like Specimen Days, it contains three different stories set in different time periods -- is a modern re-telling of Mrs. Dalloway. Although The Hours was read by tens of thousands who would not have thought to pick up To the Lighthouse or The Waves, Cunningham's readers did briefly make Mrs. Dalloway a best-seller for the first time, apparently because they were curious about the original Mrs. Dalloway, the one who does not live with her lesbian partner and their daughter by artificial insemination.
At their best, novels about real writers can offer insights denied to the mere literary critic, who must traffic only in known facts. Colm Tóibín took the existing biographies of Henry James together with everything he had read by James and created a narrative structure to organize them. Although you would not wish Tóibín's The Master to be the only book written about James, it was able to provide a more forceful psychological portrait of the writer than almost anything that had come before it. Cunningham ostentatiously credits more than twenty historical and literary studies on Woolf in his acknowledgments for The Hours, but finally his interest in the writer seems limited to her iconhood: the pensive photograph of her in profile by G.C. Beresford that English majors hang in their dorm rooms next to some Klimt reproduction.
The Hours begins with Woolf's suicide, and one suspects that the suicide interests Cunningham more than anything else in her biography. When the novel appeared, many found easy ways to quibble about Woolf's portrait: we see Woolf kissing her sister on the lips, being mean to the servants, obsessed by death, encompassing all the neuroses of a great female writer -- but although she is one of the twentieth century's most interesting readers, she is never shown thinking about any writer other than herself. (A collection of Woolf's influential critical essays, The Common Reader, was published the same year as Mrs. Dalloway.) The Hours is far less useful for what it claimed about Woolf than for its keen, if melodramatic, examination of how her writings affect the people who read them, whose lives are changed by them.
The most original section of The Hours is the strand featuring a suburban housewife in 1949 who, through her reading of Mrs. Dalloway, realizes that she has been living the wrong life, and decides to leave her husband and child. For Cunningham believes in the power of literature to make things happen. In Specimen Days, Whitman's poetry has use-value. The android's creator endowed him with the poetry chip so that he would become "better able to appreciate the consequences of [his] actions." In the ghost story, Whitman serves as both grief counselor and motivational speaker. In the police procedural, a black policewoman greets her white boyfriend's claim that he's never read Whitman by thinking, "Of course you haven't. You're Cedar Rapids. You're Cornell and a Harvard MBA. Your people don't do poetry. They don't need to." In Specimen Days, Whitman is exclusively for the down-and-out, who cry, "I am large, I contain multitudes" when they feel threatened.
Cunningham is intent on teaching his readers about the American bard, and he is willing to sacrifice the usual niceties of literary fiction to do so. In the police story, in order to crack the Whitman-venerating terrorists, a forensic psychologist investigating their bombings enlists the aid of a Whitman scholar from New York University to help her learn "a thing or two about Mr. Whitman." To Cunningham's credit, he labors to integrate the professor into his narrative. He has a gift for writing about female characters, although he does not always exercise it: the professor, though a small part, seems fully imagined. But her teachings are cloyingly transparent as a vehicle for the reader's edification, as the professor lectures us that "Whitman as you probably know was the first great American visionary poet" and that "he spent his life, and it was a long life, extending and revising Leaves of Grass. He published it himself. The first edition appeared in 1855. There were nine editions in all. The last, which he called his deathbed edition, appeared in 1891." And so on.
With The Hours, Cunningham was in good form as a stylist. His expositions were gentle: we learned about his subjects by watching them. No English professor was needed to say, "As you may recall, (Adeline) Virginia Stephen was born in 1882 at Hyde Park Gate." In Specimen Days, the subtlety is no more. Cunningham relies clumsily on his professor to explain how his novellas are thematically coherent with Whitman's philosophy and with one another: "Whitman empathized with everyone. In Whitman there are no insignificant lives. There are mill owners and mill workers, there are great ladies and prostitutes, and he refuses to favor any of them. He finds them all worthy and fascinating. He finds them all miraculous." Just like Michael Cunningham!
But Cunningham goes further: while Whitman sings about his own time, Cunningham sings for all people in all times in all genres, from nineteenth-century factory workers and twentieth-century suicide bombers to the future's lizard-like aliens. He out-Whitmans Whitman. And he finds that these people are all the same, "faces and hearts the same, feelings the same, yearnings the same." They even have the same names. The problem is that there is no justifying logic for all the repeating names and objects, and on their own they signify very little. They become inside jokes, drawing attention only to their own artifice.
In each of the three stories, a different member of the trio engages in an incredible act of sacrifice out of love for one of the others: "Hymns to the universal God from universal man -- all joy!" But the sacrifices are less meaningful to us than perhaps Cunningham intends, as his characters seem to have no more control over their actions than they do over the Whitman they cannot help reciting. (Fictional characters do not actually have autonomy, of course, but usually they have to be written as though they do.) In the police story, Cat gives up everything -- career, boyfriend, apartment, possessions -- in order to flee New York with one of the brainwashed child terrorists, who she fears will otherwise be imprisoned despite his youth. Hitherto she has been a model of professionalism, and she has known the child for less than a day -- so Cunningham quickly inserts into the narrative that Cat once had a son, Luke, who died as a child. On hearing about him, the child terrorist renames himself Luke -- thereby replacing the son and therefore explaining why Cat gives up so much for him. But nothing about Cat seems to reflect a woman who has lost her child, and so the explanation feels pat. As a result, Cunningham's overarching argument of man's universalism refuses to go down: yes, indeed, all characters can act alike if a writer wills it so.
Specimen Days aims to serve as a marriage of literature and criticism -- as with The Hours, Cunningham pedantically lists his sources in the acknowledgments -- and so it becomes fair to ask: how good a reader of Whitman is he? In the police procedural, the adult leading the child suicide bombers explains that she raised them on Whitman because "Whitman was the last great man who really and truly loved the world." And we are meant to understand that Whitman's cosmic uncritical love of the world -- which includes love for evildoers, "for the wicked just the same as the righteous" -- should complicate our reverence of the poet. The professor informs us that "Whitman simply loved what was," and the forensic psychologist reports back to her colleague, "It seems you could interpret him as some sort of voice for the status quo. As in, if you worked at some awful job in a factory, twelve hours a day, six days a week, here was Whitman to tell you that your life was great, your life was poetry." And we know that the psychologist must be right, because in the first novella the child factory worker indeed finds solace in Leaves of Grass.
There is much in Whitman that seems almost unforgivably time-bound -- say, his support of the Fugitive Slave laws and dislike of abolitionists -- but surely the Whitman who speaks to us from both his journalism and his poetry is hardly a "sort of voice for the status quo." Although Whitman can sometimes seem to sentimentalize labor, he has no illusions about the vileness of urban factory life. In his recent biography of Whitman, David S. Reynolds points out that the poet's radical egalitarianism could make him "sound like Karl Marx or George Lippard when he depicted the grotesque rich." In the "Myself and Mine" section of Leaves of Grass -- it is not recited by Cunningham's characters -- the poet cries: "Let others praise eminent men and hold up peace, I hold up agitation and conflict." He hates those who profit from exploiting workers, writing of the "many sweating, ploughing, thrashing, and then chaff for payment receiving,/ A few idly owning, and they the wheat continually claiming." And he hates the politicians who make such exploitation possible, the "swarms of cringers, suckers, doughfaces, lice of politics, planners of sly involutions for their own preferment to city offices or state legislatures or the judiciary or congress or the presidency." Cunningham's professor is right to call Whitman a "visionary poet," except that Whitman was a visionary for a reason: he did not always praise things as they were, but as how he thought that they should be.
Cunningham's professor lectures us, rather banally, on Whitman's range: "Was he writing about industrialization? Yes, he was. Was he writing about the family? Certainly. And he was also writing about logging and sex and westward expansion. You can go at him from just about any angle." What is Cunningham to do with such an uncategorizable, overdetermined, oceanic writer? The professor says that Whitman "didn't just celebrate himself. He celebrated everybody and everything." And so Cunningham has tried to write about everything, too. His ghost story, set in a miserable factory, will show us Cunningham's censure of industrialization. Sex and the family, too, are accounted for. Westward expansion? An android and an alien flee New York and head to Colorado. Only the logging seems to be missing. And Cunningham dutifully includes all the things that Whitman surely would have written about had he lived today: September 11 and terrorism, Harvard MBAs, interstellar travel, the soulless modern office with its late-day, bottom-of-the-pot coffee sludge. It is a testament to the faith that we place in the novel that we sometimes think that it can do everything at once. But everything is a very big subject. Michael Cunningham's imagination is not as vast as Whitman's, and his talents are no match for so many multitudes.
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