Michael Cunningham wowed the critics, many readers and the Pulitzer Prize committee with his last novel, The Hours. In that clever display of literary sleight-of-hand, he used Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway as a through-line for the stories of three women a contemporary New Yorker, a disaffected California housewife in 1949 and Virginia Woolf herself. The three stories were delicately interconnected, thematically and emotionally, capturing one ordinary, yet monumental day in each woman's life.
Cunningham does something seemingly similar, yet largely different in his adventurous and haunting new book, Specimen Days. Once again, there is a literary bridge that spans three stories: this time, the poetry of Walt Whitman. And again a literary giant is a flesh-and-blood character in one of the stories. Yet while much of The Hours was centered on Woolf, Whitman here is only a peripheral character, a specter hovering over these dark tales of apocalyptic foreboding in New York City, past, present and future.
Each involves a group of similarly named characters always a man, a woman and a boy and an episode in which love and human decency transcend the soul-stripping horrors of an indifferent age. In the Machine is set in Whitman's own New York, a rapidly industrializing city feeding off the flesh of a hungry immigrant population. Lucas, an adolescent Irish boy who has memorized most of Leaves of Grass, is put to work on the same machine that crushed his older brother, Simon, to death. Before long, he begins to hear Simon's voice coming from the machine and decides that the machine has captured Simon's ghost and that machines all around him contain the souls of the dead. A contemporary tale, The Children's Crusade puts the woman at its center. A forensic psychologist for the NYPD, Cat is embroiled in the harrowing investigation of a terrorist act wherein a boy with a pipe bomb strapped to his torso has blown himself up by hugging a passerby. Having taken a warning phone call from a boy who was probably the killer, Cat is plagued by feelings of helplessness, especially when she begins getting calls from another boy who makes the same references to a family. Both boys quote Whitman, a strange clue that leads Cat to a third boy who is part of the same twisted crusade.
Like Beauty is a futuristic tale in which New York has become an anti-Disneyland, a tourist attraction where visitors pay to be menaced in Central Park. Simon is a nearly human android who works as a mugger-for-hire until, one day, he realizes he is being hunted down to be destroyed. He escapes the city with Catareen, a Nadian nanny. Nadians, the lizard-like, undocumented working class of this new world, are the first intelligent life from another planet to emigrate to the earth. As Simon and Catareen leave New York, they meet a deformed boy. The three form a makeshift family, but Simon is surprised by the depth of his human emotions when faced with a future-altering decision.
A number of motifs and locations tie these stories together: the date June 21, a small porcelain bowl that reappears in each, the angel statue that presides over the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, street addresses in lower Manhattan. And, of course, lines from Whitman's poems recur, each time with slightly new meaning. There is a thematic pattern, too, in the three characters' sacrifices for one another. Though billed as a novel, Specimen Days is really three individually compelling stories that together form something greater. Cunningham's audacious eye, his ability to hone an unexpected image from an unlikely source, is in sharp focus, and the prowess he showed in The Hours for getting inside his characters' heads is still in evidence, most convincingly in The Children's Crusade. Like Whitman, Cunningham is searching for an all-embracing vision for our times. Though only partly successful in forging that vision, Specimen Days is nonetheless a challenging and engaging work of fiction that proves Cunningham is more than a one-trick pony.
Robert Weibezahl recently released his first novel, The Wicked and the Dead.