Review of Michael Cunningham’s novel Specimen Days; Toronto Star, 2005.
It’s still early in the critical jousting over Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham’s new novel, and already several reviewers have accused him of recycling his last one. That would be The Hours, the 1999 blockbuster hit made up of three interwoven stories about people in varying stages of emotional distress – one of those people being Virginia Woolf, whose style, themes, and situations are reworked in the book.
Cunningham’s new novel is also made up of three connected stories to which a dead literary figure – poet Walt Whitman in this case – serves as a kind of godparent. Still, the cries of “retread” are unfair. In Specimen Days, Cunningham genre-hops from historical fiction to suspense thriller to science fiction, and whatever the book’s flaws, it’s clear that in style and subject he’s pushed himself onto new ground (at least, new to him).
In fact, the book that Specimen Days really calls to mind is David Mitchell’s hit novel Cloud Atlas. Both of them dabble in various genres and hopscotch across various time periods, and both tease the reader with clues and echoes that link the various stories. I don’t mean to suggest that the similarity is anything but coincidental (Mitchell’s book was published only last year, after all), but Specimen Days does suffer in comparison: it lacks Cloud Atlas’s giddy, propulsive plotting, and Cunningham’s connective webs feel less clever and energizing than Mitchell’s.
One of the disappointments of Specimen Days is the way Cunningham handles his discrete narratives. In The Hours they were intertwined, with the reader pulled back and forth among three time periods in a manner that, while it may have been contrived, at least seemed organic during the reading. The stories were also nicely brought together at the end, in a way that managed to seem satisfyingly inevitable rather than manipulative. In Specimen Days, in contrast, each story ends before the next begins, and most of the connections between them are slight – such as the recurring character names, or variants of them, and the Whitman motif, which feels like an add-on more than an integral part of the proceedings. The overall effect suggests a collection of novellas more than a novel.
Still, for the most part Specimen Days is engaging enough that it’s tempting to overlook the structural jerry-rigging. And one common link to the novel’s three parts is the Manhattan setting – a lovingly rendered backdrop that goes a long way toward providing narrative continuity and momentum.
“In the Machine,” the first piece, is set in the 1800s, among New York’s desperately poor. Lucas, a sickly 13-year-old, takes over his brother’s job at a metalworks plant after the brother is crushed in the workings of a machine. Lucas divides his energy between trying to provide for his frail, ghostlike parents and mooning over Catherine, his dead brother’s fiancée; his only solace lies in reading from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass at night. (He also quotes from the book in conversation, compulsively and convulsively – his spasms provide a comic touch that doesn’t quite feel intentional.) The boy’s situation gets more desperate when he hears the keening voice of Simon, his dead brother, emanating from the machines around him – the gears at work, his mother’s music box – and becomes convinced that malevolent ghosts are reaching out to ensnare the living.
The portentous gloom of “In the Machine” makes it the most ponderous of the three pieces here. But it also makes for a nice parable about the anxieties of the industrial age – and the theme of paranoia runs deeper as the novel progresses. In the second story, “The Children’s Crusade,” the time is now, with New York City enshrouded in dread by the still-fresh World Trade Center attack. The protagonist is Cat, a forensic psychologist who works with the FBI, logging and interpreting terrorist threats. A group of child suicide bombers are striking at random throughout the city, and they share an obsession with the poetry of Whitman – and with Cat, who’s drawn into their eerie campaign.
The final section, “Like Beauty,” is set about 120 years from now, in a distinctly dystopian New York. A sinister private-sector plutocracy calls the shots, and the city has become a kind of theme park. Simon, a sentient android, makes his living as local colour for the tourist trade, simulating muggings on demand (shades here of the stories of George Saunders). But it turns out that Simon’s creator imprinted him with a hidden homing impulse, and when it kicks in, Simon flees New York for Colorado in search of his maker – in the company of Catareen, a female lizardlike creature from another planet.
The vision of the future here is a familiar one, from its jargon (“hoverpods” float by overhead) to its facile satire (children are named “Tomcruise” and “Katemoss”). But if Cunningham doesn’t exactly reinvent his genres in Specimen Days, he does show a certain fluency in them. “The Children’s Crusade” subtly escalates the suspense, as Cat’s own safety is compromised, while “Like Beauty” deftly avoids overexposition, parsing out just enough detail about the state of the world circa 2120 to keep the story coherent.
Ultimately, though, the novel shows little cumulative power, mainly because of the handling of the Whitman motif. The Leaves of Grass quotations that various characters spout are lovely in and of themselves, but the poet’s influence never really seems encoded in the novel’s DNA. And Whitman’s relation to the overall theme – the search for beauty and transcendence in an age of everyday dehumanization – remains superficial.
Again, in fact, the advantage goes to Cloud Atlas. Mitchell focused on the battle between altruism and avarice within human nature, and while his message wasn’t necessarily any more profound than Cunningham’s, it seemed more vivid and deeply felt, rooted in character rather than abstract ideas. Specimen Days, which essentially presents good people battling the vague and faceless spirit of the age, is not nearly as haunting.