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Specimen Days: A Novel Paperback – April 18, 2006
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
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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
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.