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