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Specimen Days: A Novel Paperback – April 18, 2006
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“Specimen Days offers just about every kind of literary pleasure, and all of them in abundance: suspense, hilarity, invention, romance, and passage after passage of breathtaking prose.” ―Ethan Canin, The Washington Post
“Michael Cunningham has taken a quantum leap imaginatively, stylistically, and thematically in this bewitching novel of a metamorphosing New York City. . . . Brilliantly conceived, empathic, darkly humorous, and gorgeously rendered, Cunningham's galvanizing novel . . . is a genuine literary event.” ―Booklist (starred review)
“An extraordinary book, as ambitious as it is generous . . . I promise you fun, marvels, adventure, love stories, plus the uninhibited exercise of a great natural writer and an inspired historian. . . . This is a transforming book, the lovely, tattered record of our time and place, and of our wish to prevail.” ―David Thomson, The New York Observer
“[Specimen Days] is a love song of a novel, rich and melancholy and overflowing with smartness.” ―The Boston Globe
“Another dazzling tour de force.” ―Library Journal
“An astonishing accomplishment and the best book Cunningham has written.” ―O magazine
“One of the most luminous and penetrating novels to appear this year.” ―The Oregonian (Portland)
“It is his unique moral vision that successfully hinges three distinct narrative panels into a triptych of unified beauty. It's what raises his individual stories out of their genres into the glorious realm of art . . . Big, haunting, beautiful.” ―Los Angeles Times Book Review
“[A] tour de force.” ―People****
“Exquisitely written.” ―Entertainment Weekly
“Stunning . . . It is a rich reading experience, going from the brutal factory scenes to the thriller of the middle section, and then on to the brave new world of the final section. Cunningham has made something substantively and stylistically bold out of these stories, keeping his many fires stoked and pulling the parts together as a brilliant whole.” ―The Seattle Times
“Quite simply and even more impressively than in The Hours, Cunningham writes like an angel. . . . Read this magical, spellbinding novel.” ―The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Like Whitman, Cunningham too sings America, in all its grime and glory . . . and Specimen Days is a book of wonders.” ―The Times Picayune (New Orleans)
“Line by line, page by page, one of the most beautifully executed experiments of the decade.” ―NPR's All Things Considered
About the Author
Michael Cunningham is the author of the bestselling novel The Hours, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award and was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film, A Home at the End of the World, also adapted for the screen, and Flesh and Blood, all published by FSG. He lives in New York.
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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
Cunningham's main character is Simon. But Simon is different as a character in each of the renditions. The primary factor between the renditions is temporal. The three renditions take place at different times in history. The first takes place around 1856 to 1859 as best as it is revealed in the book. However, since Whitman first published "Leaves Of Grass" in 1855, it had to be after that.
The second rendition is circa 2005. But the names of the characters are the same, and certain things from the first rendition carry to the 2nd. But the main sustaining thread between the stories remains Whitman. In the first story, Whitman even appears briefly as a character. In the 2nd and 3rd, he is prominent as a philosophy.
Most of all, Cunningham seems to be trying to say that Whitman is not only timeless but universal. In his 3rd rendition, Simon is a "simulo" a titanium frame with a human body. His traveling companion is an "alien." This alien is from a different planet, about 10 to 17 lightyears away, but it is a metaphoric concept. Cunningham uses a real alien to represent an `Illegal Alien" and all other minority groups in this country. He uses it to show prejudice and xenophobia which both seem, to one extent or another, as Universal as Whitman. Yet Whitman would not have rejected this concept. Whitman rejected nothing, he only accepted and loved. Cunningham takes us just one step further to the understanding of Whitman's concept of universality and love of all. We can all be found in the Leaves Of Grass in the end.
The book is recommended for all readers of great literary fiction. Cunningham truly has a gift for writing. Do not miss this opportunity to experience it.