Michael Cunningham, who won both the 1999 Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner prizes for his magnificent novel "The Hours," has come out with another...
by Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
305 pp., $24
… what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me
as good as belongs to you.
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— Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”
Michael Cunningham, who won both the 1999 Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner prizes for his magnificent novel “The Hours,” has come out with another stunning work, a three-part novel set in the past, present and future with Walt Whitman as its animating force.
In “The Hours,” Cunningham used a similar three-part structure to pay homage to Virginia Woolf and her 1925 novel, “Mrs. Dalloway.” In “Specimen Days,” characters in all the sections quote lines from Whitman’s master work, “Leaves of Grass.” The spiritual nature of Whitman’s poems, celebrating his connection to all living people and all things on the planet, suffuses this fresh and complex novel.
In each of the three sections, there is a similar trio of characters: a woman named Catherine or some variation of it, a man named Simon and a child named Lucas or Luke. In the first part, set in New York City around the 1870s, 12-year-old Lucas takes over his older brother Simon’s factory job after Simon has died there in a horrible machine accident.
Lucas has an odd appearance and a savantlike manner of spouting lines of poetry from “Leaves of Grass” in conversation. He worships Catherine, his brother’s fiancée, and she worries about him.
The author of “Specimen Days” will read at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).
Lucas finds meaning in his apprehension of the world through Whitman’s poetry. The narrative makes sense of the dreamlike intuitive state that he lives in, surrounded by the vigor of New York in the Industrial Age. Finally, Lucas saves Catherine from a catastrophe that calls to mind irrevocable images from Sept. 11, 2001.
In the contemporary middle section, a black psychologist named Cat works for the NYPD crime deterrence unit some years after 9/11, mostly taking phone calls from the lonely and the mad. She starts getting calls from child suicide bombers whose method, hugging a randomly chosen adult before detonating their bombs, sets the city on edge.
After the second bomber proves to be the brother of the first, police work turns up a woman who has collected unwanted, deformed babies and brought them up in an apartment wallpapered with pages from “Leaves of Grass,” possibly grooming them for this kind of homegrown terrorism. Her chilling summary of the unprecedented prosperity in America, the simultaneous environmental degradation and America’s military paranoia is used as a justification for bringing it all down: “Would you say this is working out? Does this seem to you like a story that wants to continue?”
The final section is set about 100 years in the future, in a “post-meltdown” America. New York is known as “Old New York City,” something of an amusement park where foreign tourists can pay to be mugged in Central Park by thugs in “period dress.” The currency is the yen. Vast tracts of America, from the eastern seaboard to the Rockies, have been evacuated, and small bands of outlaws huddle in toxic, birdless wastelands.
Simon is a “simulo,” a manufactured humanoid who travels to Denver with Catareen, a Nadian woman. Nadians are lizardlike creatures from the planet Nadia, treated as the lowest caste of immigrant workers. Along the way, they pick up Luke, a damaged child on the run. They travel across the broken, poisoned, empty, undemocratic remains of the America so cherished by Whitman.
Even before Simon knows Catareen’s story, he makes choices that affirm his initially artificial humanity and becomes more human. Simon has Whitman’s poetry in his circuitry, thanks to his maker, Emory Lowell, as well as impulses to protect and do no harm. Lowell has planned to leave Earth on June 21 for another planet whose habitability is unknown, and he invites Simon to come.
Each story is complete and surprising in and of itself. And yet taken together, the triptych suggests a continuum of meanings of the loves and griefs expressed in each story, an arc that hovers like a protective zone over centuries of American “development.”
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.
Wingate Packard is a writer, editor and Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Washington.