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Specimen Days Hardcover – June 7, 2005
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Book Description: In each section of Michael Cunningham's bold new novel, his first since The Hours, we encounter the same group of characters: a young boy, an older man, and a young woman. "In the Machine" is a ghost story that takes place at the height of the industrial revolution, as human beings confront the alienating realities of the new machine age. "The Children's Crusade," set in the early twenty-first century, plays with the conventions of the noir thriller as it tracks the pursuit of a terrorist band that is detonating bombs, seemingly at random, around the city. The third part, "Like Beauty," evokes a New York 150 years into the future, when the city is all but overwhelmed by refugees from the first inhabited planet to be contacted by the people of Earth.
Presiding over each episode of this interrelated whole is the prophetic figure of the poet Walt Whitman, who promised his future readers, "It avails not, neither time or place ... I am with you, and know how it is." Specimen Days is a genre-bending, haunting, and transformative ode to life in our greatest city and a meditation on the direction and meaning of America's destiny. It is a work of surpassing power and beauty by one of the most original and daring writers at work today.
|More from Michael Cunningham|
A Home at the End of the World
Flesh and Blood
The Portable Walt Whitman
Specimen Days & Collect
Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Engaging Walt Whitman as his muse (and borrowing the name of Whitman's 1882 autobiography for his title), Cunningham weaves a captivating, strange and extravagant novel of human progress and social decline. Like his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Hours, the novel tells three stories separated in time. But here, the stage is the same (the "glittering, blighted" city of Manhattan), the actors mirror each other (a deformed, Whitman-quoting boy, Luke, is a terrorist in one story and a teenage prophet in another; a world-weary woman, Catherine, is a would-be bride and an alien; and a handsome young man, Simon, is a ghost, a business man and an artificial human) and weighty themes (of love and fear, loss and connection, violence and poetry) reverberate with increasing power. "In the Machine," set during the Industrial Revolution, tells the story of 12-year-old Luke as he falls in love with his dead brother's girlfriend, Catherine, and becomes convinced that the ghost of his brother, Simon, lives inside the iron works machine that killed him. The suspenseful "The Children's Crusade" explores love and maternal instinct via a thrilleresque plot, as Cat, a black forensic psychologist, draws away from her rich, white and younger lover, Simon, and toward a spooky, deformed boy who's also a member of a global network committed to random acts of terror. And in "Like Beauty," Simon, a "simulo"; Catareen, a lizard-like alien; and Luke, an adolescent prophet, strike out for a new life in a postapocalyptic world. With its narrative leaps and self-conscious flights into the transcendent, Cunningham's fourth novel sometimes seems ready to collapse under the weight of its lavishness and ambition—but thrillingly, it never does. This is daring, memorable fiction.
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SPECIMEN DAYS takes place over a span of approximately three hundred years and in doing so it avoids chronology that would make it 'historical fiction', linear writing that would suggest a magnum opus novel, and fabrication of language or place that would imitate science fiction. The stories are three in number, individually named, able to stand solely on their own: this could be three novellas in collection. But Cunningham challenges us to find the threads of similarity, the permutations of seeds planted in the first pages that stretch and grow through the entire book, and he does this with the glue of the poetry and presence of Walt Whitman whose words "It avails not, neither time or place...I am with you, and know how it is" are graciously quoted on the cover flap.
The constants are in the characters' names of Catherine (or Cat or Catareen), Lucas (or Luke), Simon; the fragments of Whitman's poetry from 'Leaves of Grass' which emanate from the lips of a lad or a child or a programmed humanoid; a small decorated bowl that surfaces almost like a spirit in each story. How Cunningham weaves these simple aspects into three wildly different tales form different times is not only amazingly fine but also stimulating to the reader's eyes and spirit.
A story about the downtrodden poor of the industrial revolution in New York City and how love can encourage unimaginable sacrifices progresses to post-9/11 Manhattan where like named characters respond to the humanism of the sacrifices of terrorism which in turn progresses into a completely imagined future when man's greed and drive to conquer space, has superceded caring for earth's mankind and resulted in intergalactic travel mixing the populations of two planets in the remains of a discarded Old New York. And when a robotic humanoid from this last place asks his creator about his existence, the designer says 'I gave you poetry...To regulate you. To eliminate the extremes...I could program you to be helpful and kind, but I wanted to give you some moral sense as well...I thought that if you were programmed with the work of great poets, you'd be better able to appreciate the consequences of your actions."
Of Whitman's poetry Cunningham introduces in each story the lines 'What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.' And for this reader therein lies the magical beauty of this strange but enormously successful book. Cunningham's way with words is luminously simple: 'It seemed possible. It did not seem possible'. And with his writing gifts he has created another wonder. Grady Harp, July 05
The first of the three stories is, I think, the most memorable and certainly the eeriest. James's "Turn of the Screw" comes to mind repeatedly, although Cunningham's tale is set in the crowded streets of late-nineteenth-century Manhattan instead of the claustrophobic English countryside. Seen through the eyes of a young boy whose older brother has just died, a victim of a ghastly accident in one of America's new sweatshops, "In the Machine" recalls the terrors, real and imagined, of the Industrial Revolution. Walt Whitman makes his only bodily appearance in the book, but there's a bit of dissonance when one of the pivotal moments recalls a famous event from 1911--nineteen years after Whitman's death. At first I thought that this was one of the story's Shyamalan-inspired moments (perhaps Whitman was another one of the story's ghosts!), but Cunningham in his preface acknowledges that events "may have been separated by twenty years or more." So, I gather, he intentionally sacrifices historical precision for a good story, but I'm not convinced the diversion was necessary.
Nevertheless, what makes each of these three tales fascinating is Cunningham's adventurousness and his willingness to experiment with new genres and the form of the novel itself. In the second story, "The Children's Crusade," he shows that he can blend the horror of September 11, a detective story about pre-adolescent suicide bombers, and a knockout finale without losing sight of his intentions. The third parable, however, about an extraterrestrial nanny and a humanoid who escape New York, occasionally strikes a false note. At its best, ""Like Beauty" might remind readers of the better stories of Ray Bradbury (albeit, with far more lyrical writing), but at times Cunningham seems a stranger to the genre (or, perhaps, I simply read so much sci-fi that I'm more sensitive to the misfires). Still, it's got a wallop of a chase scene and two memorably humane portraits of its nonhuman protagonists.
Finally, the linkages among the three novellas range from inorganic surface connections (i.e., the character's names in each section, the reappearance of a small white bowl) to the book's underlying themes (its homage to New York City and, of course, the influence of the Walt Whitman). But even the poetry references don't always work; in the ghost story, the young narrator blurts out seemingly random, often appropriate, sometimes obscure lines from "Leaves of Grass," which at times nearly reduces free verse to a mutation of Tourette's syndrome.
Still, it's been two months since I finished "Specimen Days," and I can't get large chunks of it out of my mind. Overall, I'm beginning to realize, the manifest flaws that result from Cunningham's eagerness to take brave risks don't overpower the strength of his portraits and the thrill of his plots.