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 Collin Kelley reviews Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham


published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

320 pages







Although The Hours was Michael Cunningham's fourth novel, you would think it was a startling debut and his latest, Specimen Days, a less than stellar sophomore jinx. While Specimen Days is not better than the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours, it's just as good.


The Hours linked Virginia Woolf to two other suicidal women in different times.  Ignore the reviews that can't get past the fact that Cunningham has selected another literary lion, in this case American poet Walt Whitman, as his muse and again has broken the novel into three stories.  But these are the only echoes of The Hours.  Specimen Days is about as far from meditation on suicide as you can get. What remains is Cunningham's lyrical writing style. Every sentence is poetry, and liberal passages from Whitman's Leaves of Grass only enhance the mood.


To be sure, Specimen Days is a dark journey. Broken into three separate but connected novellas, the underlying current that runs through these stories is reincarnation. Catherine, Simon, and Lucas are introduced immediately in turn-of-the-century New York, and we are still with them several hundred years in the future, although they have been radically altered -- into an (extraterrestrial) alien in one case.  Cunningham proves that, like Margaret Atwood, he is at home in many worlds and terrains.


Cunningham expertly weaves today's political climate and fears into all three stories. A scared populace slowly gives up its freedoms until the country is divided and governed by a hard-line Christian right.  He also manages to capture New York in all its wounded glory in each era, making it a living, breathing character that cannot be bowed.


In the first story, "In the Machine," a young, deformed boy named Lucas is mourning the loss of his brother, Simon, in newly industrialized New York City. Simon was literally eaten by a giant pressing machine at a grimy factory and now Lucas has taken up his job with the hope of wooing Simon's sweet fiancée, Catherine.


Lucas is obsessed with Whitman's Leaves of Grass and can quote it at will, which he often does. While at the factory, Lucas believes that Simon's ghost is in the machine and plans to lure Catherine to her death so they can be together in the afterlife.  "His ghost had snagged on the machine's inner workings...his invisible part remained, trapped among the gears and teeth."


Though Lucas has a catatonic mother and gravely ill father to provide for, he winds up spending food money to buy Catherine a small white bowl, an object that will become a connecting thread through the rest of the novel. Scrounging for food, Lucas meets Whitman on Broadway. Uncle Walt sends Lucas on a mission to "walk far and wide": "I think you should search Broadway and beyond. I think you should search the entire world...Go north. Go up to the edges of the city and beyond. Go see where the buildings diminish and the grass begins."  Lucas winds up in Central Park at the Bethesda Fountain, with the grand stone angel staring down at him. In turn-of-the-century NYC, you can still see the stars and constellations and Lucas glimpses his future.


He takes drastic steps to save Catherine from what he is sure will be her doom at the dressmaking shop where she works. He crushes his own hand in the machinery and while being tended by Catherine, her building is consumed by fire.  The image of women leaping from the upper floors is eerily reminiscent of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.


In "The Children's Crusade," time shifts to post-September 11th Manhattan, and Catherine has been reincarnated as Cat, an African-American cop who works in a behavioral science unit investigating terrorist threats.  Cat is Jane Tennison meets Agent Scully -- but she's no Foxy Brown, as she reminds a sexist cop.  She's dating a younger white man named Simon, who "trades the future" on Wall Street.


One day, Cat gets a phone call from a young boy spouting lines of Whitman's poetry. Thinking it to be a prank, she fails to tag it for further investigation, then the kid walks up to a prominent developer near the Ground Zero site, hugs him, and blows them both up. Then another boy calls and Cat realizes there is a band of children who belong to a "family" that is using Whitman's words from Leaves of Grass as a blueprint to turn America into some kind of rural utopia. The second boy detonates himself and a fast-food clerk in front of the Bethesda Fountain,


Cat finds the small white bowl that she had sold for money in her previous life at a junk shop, and her team finds the child terrorists' base, which was once the factory Simon and Lucas worked in. The rooms are wallpapered with pages from Leaves of Grass. An old woman, who calls herself Walt Whitman, turns herself in and says she's one of many guiding a group of children who plan to bring about "the end of days."


Another boy, who is the reincarnation of Lucas, shows up at Cat's apartment ready to blow her up, but she disarms him and agrees to take him out of the city and de-program him; but she realizes, too late, that this boy is just one of many children who have been brainwashed around the country for a future terrorist act that will make September 11 pale in comparison.


In "Like Beauty," it's 150 years in the future and most of America has been destroyed by an unspecified nuclear accident, during what has become known as The Children's Crusade. The Midwest is a barren, toxic wasteland and the country has been divided into zones governed by radical Christians. Manhattan is now a theme park called Old New York, where "Eurasian" tourists spend hundreds of yen to get a fetish-type thrill by being mugged or raped in Central Park by half-human, half-robot "simulos."  Simon is now one of these robots.  Catherine is now Catareen, a four-foot-tall lizard from the planet Nadia, which was the first planet Earth made contact with.  And Lucas is a prophet searching for his purpose in life.


In between gay-rape scenarios with customers, Simon spouts lines of Whitman from a poetry chip implanted in his brain, a chip that is also telling him he must escape Old New York and reach Denver by June 21. Simon is forced to take Catareen with him when he escapes, and they pick up Lucas, who is in possession of the white bowl again, along the way.


Once the trio arrives in Denver, they find that the scientist who made Simon and the other "simulos" has built a spaceship to take him and a selected group of Earthlings and Nadians to a new world that is 38 years away. Simon refuses to leave a dying Catareen, who he learns was a guerilla fighter against the evil government on her home planet. Lucas agrees to go on the spaceship, fulfilling the destiny imparted to him by Whitman. Simon stays on Earth, realizing that he is becoming less robotic and more human, and he pushes ahead to the West Coast like the explorers that came before him.


Cunningham has managed to take three disparate genres of writing (historical drama, modern day crime thriller, and science fiction) and turn them into a new meditation that, while on the surface seems dark and depressing, is really one of the most hopeful stories he's ever written. Cunningham also manages to do Whitman proud by bringing his masterful poetry to a new generation. Whitman said, "It avails not, neither time or place...I am with you, and know how it is."  Does he ever.






- review by Collin Kelley 7/2005

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