Farrar, Straus and Giroux hardcover
Copyright 2005 - 305 pages
Cover dust jacket photo by P.E. Reed, Photonica
Book reviewed July 2005
Rating: 5/10 (Mildly Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
Specimen Days is comprised of three novellas, each set in a different time period, each involving characters enthralled by the poetry of Walt Whitman. (The title Specimen Days is taken from Whitman's autobiography.) This structure very closely parallels Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Hours, which was set in three different time periods and revolved around the work of Virginia Woolf. It was a peculiar choice for Cunningham to apply this same template a second time, and I cannot guess what prompted this odd literary hiccup.
The structure of Specimen Days also parallels last year's Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (shortlisted for both the mainstream's Booker Prize and science fiction's Arthur C. Clarke Award), in that it combines narratives in different time periods, extending from the past, through the present, into the future. The last of the three novellas in Specimen Days is set well in the future (as were two of the six narrative threads in Cloud Atlas). By my definition, this makes Specimen Days as a whole science fiction, since the science fiction elements are crucial to the story. One could argue that it is really a collection of three novellas, only one of which is science fiction, but this ignores the interconnections between the three sections. Cunningham is careful to underscore the three parts' interdependence by giving the main characters in each section the same names (roughly), by setting them all at least partly in New York City, and with other recurring patterns such as the same china bowl making an unlikely appearance in each section. In particular, he hints that the events of the second tale help to bring about the future world of the third.
The first of the three novellas, "In the Machine", is set in Nineteenth Century New York. The viewpoint character Lucas is a teenage son of Irish immigrants, recovering from the shock of his brother Simon's unexpected death in an industrial accident, while at the same trying to comfort Simon's fiancée Catherine. Lucas is shy and awkward and physically deformed, deformities that recur in each of his three incarnations. Lucas frequently responds to stress by blurting out passages from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which he is in the process of compulsively memorizing - in one entertaining passage he recites Whitman to Whitman himself. In order to feed his family, Lucas takes over his brother's job at the nearby iron works, and he soon begins to suspect that some part of his brother Simon's spirit was captured by the machine that took his life.
In "The Children's Crusade", the viewpoint character is Catherine, here a black woman called "Cat." (If you think that's a big transformation, wait'll you see her in the third section.) Cat works in the present day for the NYPD, fielding telephone calls from crazies, a job that fascinates her wealthy boyfriend Simon no end. She receives a series of calls from young people who have been trained as suicide bombers by a madwoman who has indoctrinated them in, you guessed it, Walt Whitman poetry, supplying meanings that certainly would have appalled Whitman. Cat becomes obsessed with finding and stopping one of the young bombers, who will turn out to be named Luke.
While the first two sections could arguably be labeled a ghost story and a detective thriller, the third novella, "Like Beauty", is all science fiction. Simon takes his turn as viewpoint character, this time in the role of an android "simulo," who has been programmed to recite Whitman poetry at random moments. Over a century from now, the United States is badly depressed due to a devastating nuclear meltdown, and Simon is scratching out a living posing as an old-style New York mugger, catering to the sado-masochistic fantasies of foreign tourists. He befriends Catareen, a member of a lizardlike alien species called Nadians, who have become society's new underclass. When the government steps up its persecution of simulos, Simon and Catareen steal a hoverpod and take it on the lam, soon joined by a boy named Luke. They travel toward Denver (which is as far as Whitman got in the travels he recounted in his original version of Specimen Days), where Simon hopes to find his creator.
All this may give the impression that Cunningham is slumming in different genres, but he treats his science fiction elements with respect. Indeed, in a recent interview, Cunningham (correctly) declared that science fiction books "are often more interesting, deep and provocative than the tepid, thinly veiled autobiographies in the serious section." The science fiction scenario of Specimen Days is not terribly original, but Cunningham handles it competently, albeit with occasional clumsy moments - for instance, he shows a child conceived by a human and an extraterrestrial, which any SF writer knows is less likely biologically than a man impregnating a turtle.
In all three sections, Cunningham shows himself to be an interesting and capable writer, although like many mainstream authors he is a bit too enamored with his own writing skills. Whatever color the sky is, it is always "searing." The narrative labors under the weight of nice sounding but meaningless phrases like "complexities of being" and "creaturely inevitability." There are a number of writers in the science fiction and fantasy genres who have no less talent than Michael Cunningham, but most of them have greater restraint.
Similarly, Cunningham's recurring names and objects in Specimen Days do not prove very meaningful. The recurring Whitman quotations seem random until the science fiction section, when Simon's Whitman quotations ironically remind him that his programming is inadequate for him to fully appreciate the beauty Whitman described. This is clever, but not enough to justify all the novel's repeated and contrived poetry recitals. In contrast to John Crowley's recent Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land, which makes much more satisfying use of Byron, I did not feel that Specimen Days gave me any great insight into Walt Whitman or his work.Indeed, I must question the wisdom of this whole exercise. If Whitman's poetry is at heart a celebration of life and beauty, as Cunningham unsurprisingly concludes, then would it not be a more fitting tribute to him to write a novel that also celebrates life and beauty, instead of a rather dreary book that invokes Whitman by forcing its characters to involuntarily spit out fragments of his poetry? It makes me wonder if, for all his analysis of Whitman, Cunningham missed the point. Recall how Whitman himself chided readers who study his poems rather than emulating them: "Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?"
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Copyright © 2005 Aaron Hughes
Picador paperback edition
352 pages (right)