Hippo Manchester
August 18, 2005

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Specimen Days, by Michael Cunningham, FSG, 2005, 305 pages.

by Dan Szczesny

Michael Cunningham may be the most daring modern writer working.

It is impossible to discuss his newest work, Specimen Days, outside the shadow of his last book, The Hours (1998), which won the New York City writer a Pulitzer Prize.

In The Hours, Cunningham wove three disconnected but related novellas into an exquisite story that spanned three generations and pivoted on Virginia Woolf and her novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Using Woolf as a structural device allowed Cunningham to parallel both Woolf’s life in general and Mrs. Dalloway in particular. Never has Woolf’s themes of paths not taken and independence seemed more current. The movie dragged, but the Pulitzer was deserved.

Now comes Specimen Days, in many ways the stronger spiritual cousin of The Hours. In it, Cunningham resurrects yet another literary giant to serve as the foundation for the novel, in this case Walt Whitman. Like The Hours, Specimen Days tells three stories separated by time, but connected by Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and played out by characters who mirror each other over the ages.

The first story is “In the Machine,” a brutal yet beautiful meditation on the cultural alienation of the industrial revolution. In the second story, “The Children’s Crusade,” post-9/11 terror is explored through a noir lens of paranoia and mistrust. In “Like Beauty,” the reader is catapulted into a post-apocalyptic future as a band of humans searches for a way off the planet.

Whitman is a constant companion, in person in the first story, via a teenage Whitman-quoting terrorist in the second story and built into the programming of an artificial human in the third.

At first glance the very idea of the novel seems more theoretical than practical, like an interesting Master’s thesis perhaps. And indeed, there are moments when the novel’s ambitions seem poised to cause the whole thing to collapse. (Cunningham’s strength is not pulp science fiction.)

But Specimen Days never collapses, mainly due to the impressive anchor of Cunningham’s use of language. It’s as though there is no throwaway turn of phrase or empty connector. Cunningham’s prose is never rushed, and has a florid grace that makes reading even exposition or general description a treat.

Take this example, from “In the Machine,” a simple point-of-view moment relating a mid-1800’s New York City street scene: “On the sidewalk around him, the last of the shoppers were relinquishing the street to the first of the revelers. Ladies in dresses the color of pigeons’ breasts, the color of rain, swished along bearing parcels, speaking softly to one another from under their feathered hats. Men in topcoats strode confidently, spreading the bleak perfume of their cigars, flashing their teeth, slapping the stone with their licorice boots.”

Like Whitman, Cunningham selects his words with the precision of a watchmaker. One wrong step and the whole device won’t work.

Ultimately, Specimen Days searches for the connection between the natural and the engineered, themes Whitman struggled with his whole career, rewriting Leaves of Grass over and over, not only to make it perfect, but also because Whitman felt that all life was organic and constantly in flux. Cunningham’s novel celebrates both the frustration and the joy of Whitman’s search, as well as weaves a galvanizing tale. Specimen Days is daring, thrilling fiction.