Walt Whitman haunts this triptych novel from the author of "The Hours," which raises historical fiction, the detective story and science fiction to the status of literature.
There is a plan at work in Michael Cunningham’s new novel; let’s get that out of the way first. Like his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Hours,” the book is made up of three stories set in different historical periods by people whose lives echo one another in mysterious yet significant ways. All this is infused by the spirit of a past literary genius, with Walt Whitman serving in that role for “Specimen Days” as Virginia Woolf did for “The Hours.” Certain themes recur in each of the three stories in “Specimen Days”: class differences, the difficulty of feeling authentically, quasi-Buddhist notions of rebirth and the afterlife, the exhilarating nightmare of New York City, the dream of escaping New York City.
Cunningham’s intention is clear (although some critics have inexplicably missed it): He sees Whitman as the inclusive, expansive, loving and slightly crazed spirit of what’s best about America. Whitman refused to acknowledge the differences of sex, race and class as differences in people’s worth, and Cunningham, the quintessential contemporary literary novelist, aims in this book to embrace three literary genres that are usually considered “beneath” his own: historical fiction, police thriller and science fiction. If we want to know what America really is, he (by implication) exhorts his fellow literati, we need to explore what America really reads.
The result, taken story by story, and especially in the last two, is rather wonderful. (There’s a strong resemblance to David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” a spooky synchronicity when you realize that Cunningham must have been finishing up “Specimen Days” when “Cloud Atlas” came out.) While the devices and clichés of genre fiction can make it entertaining but shallow, the narrative listlessness of a lot of literary fiction often undermines its lovely prose and delicate character insights. Readers seldom get both in one package. Cat, the 38-year-old African-American forensic psychologist in Cunningham’s second story, “The Children’s Crusade,” is a stock figure — the brooding thriller detective with a painful past — reenvisioned as a flesh-and-blood woman, the way the Blue Fairy transformed wooden Pinocchio into a real boy.
Cunningham sees the thriller genre’s bid for gritty realism, and raises the stakes until they actually matter. The office where Cat works “resembled nothing so much as a failing mail order business”; a co-worker has “the pure, shining conviction of the almost smart” and is “one of the new breed, guys who seemed to think that if they were right up front about their sexism and racism, if they walked in and sat down and just said it, they were at least semi-absolved.” She finds herself playing irksome roles (“the queenly bearing and the schoolmarm diction”) to get along in the world and, most painfully, to charm her white stockbroker boyfriend, who loves to hear her talk cop.
Likewise, in the novel’s third section, “Like Beauty,” we find the usual unfamiliar futuristic paraphernalia requiring exhaustive description, but the descriptions themselves transcend science fiction’s typically mechanical exposition: A soothing drink called “serotoninade” has been engineered to be “the precise color of a swimming pool at night.” Even better, the characters — a semibiological android experiencing the first glimmers of emotion, a reptilian extraterrestrial whose people serve as nannies and gardeners for human beings, and a discarded, deformed boy — have nuanced, three-dimensional inner lives.
Science fiction can be intellectually stimulating but psychologically stunted; in this case, though, Cunningham renders the emerging humanity of Simon, the android, with rare sensitivity. It begins with a realization, after the three companions hit the road in a post-nuclear pilgrimage to find Simon’s maker, that “the world was made of tricks and sorrows, of zealots and shoddiness and brutal authorities and old men in costumes.” It continues through a touching conversation with Catareen, the alien, in which Simon learns that his experience of disconnection between who he appears to be and who he believes he really is may be the lot of all sentient creatures and not, after all, a sign of his own artificiality.
As adventures in genre cross-pollination, “The Children’s Crusade” and “Like Beauty” are exciting, fresh and important innovations (the first story, “In the Machine,” not so much), so does it matter that the overall plan Cunningham has created for the novel feels too schematic? Only, I think, if you believe such experiments need intellectual justifications. I see how Walt Whitman works in the theory of “Specimen Days,” but in practice, once Cunningham really gets going, he’s extraneous, an emblem of cultural gravitas the book doesn’t need. As Simon muses, watching a motley band of pilgrims preparing to leave for another planet, “the passengers on the Mayflower had probably been like this, too … It was nut jobs. It was hysterics and visionaries and petty criminals. The odes and monuments, the plaques and pageants, came later.” The big ideas in “Specimen Days” have a touch of the plaque in them, so just keep your eye on the nut jobs.
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