Michael Cunningham wrote two novels before The Hours, but the oversize success of that book and the movie spun from it means that his name is now inextricably fused to Virginia Woolf’s—not to mention Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose. You might expect a serious literary writer like Cunningham would be eager to slough off all traces of his bestseller and set off for uncharted fictional territories. While Specimen Days bears little resemblance to
The Hours in terms of content, the structural echoes are unmistakable.
This time around, Cunningham’s muse is Walt Whitman, whose words supply connective tissue among the book’s three intertwined novellas.
Specimen Days roots each of its sections in a different era (spanning the 19th century to the 22nd) and genre (from romantic ghost story to sharp-edged thriller to playful science fiction). In each tale, the same trio of characters appears, mutating over the ages as they are buffeted by the mundane struggles and specific obsessions of their times. Cunningham spoils us by first immersing us in the unhinged world of Lucas, a misshapen 13-year-old savant living in 1870s Manhattan. Instead of speaking plain English, Lucas Tourettically recites Whitman. The sentiments are often entirely relevant, but for obvious reasons, this marks him as a major freak, something already signposted by his pumpkin-shaped head.
After older brother Simon is crushed in a factory accident, Lucas takes over his job to feed the family. For Lucas, there’s a permeable membrane between the living and dead. He hears Simon’s voice coming through the clanking of the equipment and worries that, “his ghost had snagged on the machine’s inner workings.” Lucas sees a continuum between people and things, a sort of pantheistic communism of matter purloined from Whitman. “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Lucas repeats, quoting “Song of Myself.” People can be reduced to ashes and inhaled with the air—they’re “part of something vaster and more marvelous than the living can imagine.” Cunningham fashions all this into a rapturous historical thriller: Lucas becomes convinced that Simon’s ghost has returned to lure his fiancée, Catherine, to the grave with him.
A shadowy, unfinished character in the first part of the book, Catherine takes control of the narrative in the contemporary second section. She morphs into Cat, an African American forensic psychologist who sifts through calls from would-be terrorists. Her rich white boyfriend, Simon, treats her like an “exotic specimen”—”a stern black goddess of law enforcement”—but she’s fragile from the death of her son, Luke. Cat’s empathy for troubled boys draws her into the midst of a suicide bomber ring populated by cryptic children who quote Whitman to justify an impending apocalypse. Cunningham pulls off the stylistic gymnastics, but the shift from Lucas’s world to the 21st-century noir vibe is like being yanked out of a warm bath and shoved into a chilled interrogation room. Problematically, he uses this section to clarify stuff in the first, with clumsy contrivances like a visit to a Whitman expert at NYU who provides a banal précis of the poet. And while reincarnating characters in different eras is a daring maneuver, the result verges on gimmicky, distracting us from the story with this puzzle of connections. Some of the more literal echoes—like the porcelain bowl Cat finds in the same bric-a-brac store Catherine sold it to more than 100 years before—ring downright false.
In the dystopic futureworld of Specimen Days’ final section, Cat transforms into Catareen, an emerald-skinned alien from planet Nadia. Despite “prominent nostrils and eyes slightly smaller than golf balls,” she’s considered a beauty in her world. Catareen comes to the aid of Simon, who works as a mugger in the Old New York theme park, menacing thrill-seeking tourists for a fee. Although he looks like a regular guy, he’s actually a humanoid, one of a few prototype cyber-creatures embedded with a poetry chip (of course) and something approximating real emotions. Like his 1870s namesake, Simon is the proverbial ghost in the machine. But the Christians have begun waging a holy war against “artificials,” sending Simon on the lam. Accompanied by Catareen, he sets off to meet his maker, a pilgrimage that takes the pair through a toxic, vacant America. This overt echo of Blade Runner might’ve marred the section if Cunningham hadn’t drenched the whole thing in sly humor—from tiny jokes, like a bratty little boy named tomcruise, to whimsical notions such as a Disneyland-style simulation of the East Village complete with faux derelicts and ersatz punks.
None of Specimen Days‘ moving parts fit together precisely, each one too swollen with ideas and prose to be a cog in this contraption. But Cunningham’s vision of history is enthralling and messy—people forging blindly onward, impelled by what Whitman dubbed “the procreant urge of the world.” At one point, Lucas imagines the tattered 19th-century residents of the Lower East Side marching slowly “so it only seemed as if they moved of their own will; all of them walking on, past the houses and stables, past the taverns, past the works and into the river, where they would fall, one after another after another, and continue to walk, drowned but inanimate, on the bottom, until the street was finally empty.”