In his previous two novels, Michael Cunningham established himself as the preeminent chronicler of paralyzing self-consciousness. A Home at the End of the World and Flesh and Blood focused on gay men and suburban mothers, characters whose particular prisons (the closet, the suburbs) teach their inmates habits of restraint that prove almost impossible to unlearn. It feels appropriate that Cunningham’s latest book, The Hours, pays homage to Virginia Woolf, who has fully explored how tentative the project of self-realization can be. Woolf’s troubling insight in Mrs. Dalloway is that only the thinnest membrane separates Clarissa Dalloway, the complacent hostess, from Septimus Smith, the suicidal World War I vet; the novel reminds us that we are all free at any given moment either to continue the charming small talk or to pitch ourselves out the window onto the neighbor’s spiky fence.
The Hours treats the lives of three women in a series of alternating, interwoven chapters. The sections titled “Mrs. Woolf” focus on the writer during the day in June 1923 when she begins working on her breakthrough novel. The second thread depicts a depressed housewife in 1949 Los Angeles who temporarily absents herself from her arid life by renting a downtown hotel room and devouring a copy of Mrs. Dalloway. The third story (traced in a series of chapters headed “Mrs. Dalloway”) concerns a modern-day New York book editor, Clarissa Vaughan, who lives in a posh West Village apartment with her lover Sally Seton, a TV producer. Her activities parallel those of her literary namesake. In Cunningham’s novel, she prepares to throw a party for her best friend Richard, a poet in the process of surrendering to AIDS-related dementia.
The Hours sets up a fugue-like interplay between the three women’s lives as they create, consume, and unknowingly imitate Mrs. Dalloway. We see Virginia toying with possible ways to open her novel, finally hitting on the now-
legendary sentence, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” The immediately following section picks up with Laura Brown
in L.A. as she reads these words and tries to imagine herself on a similar errand. In the corresponding “Mrs. Dalloway” chapter, the contemporary Clarissa performs just this task. Eventually, Mrs. Brown’s plot collides with Clarissa’s in a tragic finale that echoes the closing pages of Woolf’s novel.
Cunningham has updated Woolf’s work in the “Mrs. Dalloway” sections, and he’s also elevated its queer subcurrents to prominence. Instead of the one blissful kiss Mrs. Dalloway allots, Clarissa shares 18 years of lesbian domesticity with Sally. This might seem like hokey utopianism, but it’s not. Cunningham’s strict adherence to the emotional contours of Woolf’s plot makes the interesting point that mundanity remains constant even when sexual mores change. The modern Clarissa’s relationship is filled with the same anxieties the original Clarissa experienced with Mr. Dalloway. Where Woolf’s Clarissa worries that her husband’s political cronies find her silly, Cunningham’s heroine frets that Sally’s celebrity friends consider her “only a wife.”
Unfortunately, the psychological acuity isn’t enough to sustain what begins to feel like a series of laborious in-jokes. Cunningham has chosen to arrange Clarissa Vaughan’s day so that it resonates in almost every particular with Clarissa Dalloway’s. Woolf’s heroine walks through St. James Park and runs into Hugh Whitbread, the archetypal upper-class philistine Englishman with the “little job at Court.” Cunningham’s Clarissa walks through Washington Square Park and runs into the archetypal upper-class philistine American gay man, who’s grown rich “writing romance novels about love and loss among perfectly muscled young men.” Clarissa D., buying flowers in Soho, is startled by a car backfiring and looks up to see the passing of a state car: The Queen? The Prime Minister? Clarissa V., buying flowers in Manhattan’s Soho, hears a similar sound and looks up to see a movie-
studio trailer door swing open: Meryl Streep? Vanessa Redgrave?
And so on, in sometimes embarrassing detail. The premise begs an obvious question: how would a literate woman, whose closest friend has nicknamed her Mrs. Dalloway because of her psychic resonance with that fictional character, fail to note the creepy correspondence between Woolf’s novel and the events of this 1990s June day? This authorial bad faith permeates the “Mrs. Dalloway” chapters, and the stunts are all the more irritating because they overshadow the other, more inventive sections of the book. The “Mrs. Woolf” chapters present a fascinating portrayal of a writer’s workday, its tedium lit with sudden flashes of clarity. In the “Mrs. Brown” sections, the novel reaches an intensity of focus that hints at why this project must have appealed to Cunningham in the first place. In Laura, Cunningham has created a character nearly paralyzed with self-spectatorship. A ravenous reader, she is constantly surprised by the world she actually inhabits and the unlikely person she has become. Her longing finds its perfect match in Cunningham’s prose:
She is herself and not herself. She is a woman in London, an aristocrat, pale and charming, a little false; she is Virginia Woolf; and she is this other, the inchoate, tumbling thing known as herself, a mother, a driver, a swirling streak of pure life like the Milky Way.
In passages like this Cunningham’s writing displays a density and rhythmic assurance that evokes Woolf’s— all the more reason to regret that he’s locked his virtuosity so resolutely within the imagination of the writer he celebrates. The more adroitly The Hours performs its ambitious feats of imitation and adaptation, the more you wish Cunningham had given his own imagination freer rein.