I just finished the last page of "Specimen Days," the latest novel by Michael Cunningham. This was one cover I didn't want to close.
"Specimen Days" is a group of three novellas all linked on the surface by similar characters with the same names; by New York City as the setting; by a mysterious white bowl; and by the characters' desire to understand life beyond their own needs. It is what lies underneath the surface--terrorism, prejudice, understanding of death and the soul--that make this group of novellas really sing together.
The first part, In the Machine, is a ghost story. Set in New York back in the mid 1800s, Lucas, a young boy with a deformity and an uncontrollable urge to quote Walt Whitman lines loses his brother to the machine at which he worked. Lucas gets a job working that same machine so he can care for his ailing parents and win the heart of his brother's fiance. Lucas comes to believe the dead try to speak to us and reclaim us through the machines.
In the second part, The Children's Crusade, Cat, a sharp-witted, female crime deterrent has the job of trying to stop a band of child terrorists who quote Walt Whitman and leave pamphlets of "Leaves of Grass" as part of their manifesto. She leaves her young, successful boyfriend and takes off for something better with one of the children. Again violence and death are explored as well as love, loyalty, and prejudice. One of many brilliant moments in Cunningham's prose:
"But for now, she thought, they could go on together. They could put it off from hour to hour and maybe from month to month or year to year. She might still want to be his mother even if it proved fatal. And he might not, after all, be waiting to do it with a bread knife or a pillow as she slept; he might be willing to do it gradually, as children had been doing since time began. In a sense, he had killed her already, hadn't he? He had ended her life and taken her into this new one, this crazy rebirth, hurtling forward on a train into the vast confusion of the world, its simultaneous and never-ending collapse and regeneration, its rock-hard little promises, its owners and workers, its sanctuaries that never endured, that were never meant to be endured."
In the third part, Like Beauty, Cunningham has taken us years into the future where New York City has become a strange and cruel theme park. Simon is a nonbioligical, who has been programmed to quote Walt Whitman and is trying to stay undetected in a city that wants him disabled. He meets a female lizard nanny from the planet Nadia, who has dealt with prejudice on Earth since she arrived, and together they leave the city on a quest to find his maker. On the way they meet a young boy who helps them reach Denver, their final destination. Once there, Simon learns his capacity to feel something like love for his friend, Catareen, overrides the instinct for survival that had been implanted in him.
All three of these novellas rise off the page larger than life and certainly larger than their number of pages (about 100 each). They explore big ideas and themes all threaded together by Walt Whitman poetry, New York, and a desire to understand human nature. They work together to create something greater; a work of art to be explored again and again. Michael Cunningham truly is one of the best American novelists.
- My work can be found in REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Jabberwock Review, The Emerson Review, Storyglossia, The MacGuffin, Confrontation, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, wigleaf, Pank, New Delta Review, and Gargoyle #57, among others. One of my stories has been translated into Farsi by Asadollah Amraee, and many others by Jalil Jafari, two of which have been published in the Iranian journal, Golestaneh Magazine. Currently, I'm an Associate editor for Narrative Magazine. In 2011, I was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.