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Fine Specimen

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Unexpectedly, in a novel presided over by a lyric poet, Cunningham’s greatest formal advance is in his plotting. In earlier novels, there wasn’t much back-and-forth between what characters wished for and the life events they experienced. “This is what’s happening to me,” the mother repeats in Flesh and Blood, to force herself to understand that she was divorced, and that passive mantra could be recited by almost any of Cunningham’s characters. The Hours features a modest plot (a party) and a fragmentary one (a suicide), borrowed from Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway and from Woolf’s life. Specimen Days, by contrast, abounds with plots—a ghost’s, a terrorist’s, a robot designer’s. Cunningham is still fonder of juxtaposition than sequence, and characters still lapse on occasion into a mystifying dreaminess of motive. But plot is crucial to ghost stories, thrillers, and science fiction, and Cunningham’s experimentation with the genres brings his prose a new energy.

Will they kill themselves? was the question that hung over The Hours, a book that seemed to conclude with the thought that suicide was a great help in getting through a bad night. The characters in Specimen Days also find consolation in melodramatic departures, but the fantasy of riding off into the sunset is marginally less sublime than that of killing yourself, and marginally more responsible. Cunningham’s new question is Will they die before . . . ?—a question that relies on the idea that the characters want something beyond mere survival. Whitman, in his dark aspect, seems to represent the decision to die rather than figure out what this something is, and so Cunningham rejects him. And if the stories that Cunningham is left with may strike some readers as unresolved or piecemeal—after all, nothing has the transcendence of ecstatic death—this challenge to Whitman, or to the sublimation of selfhood he might stand for, is exactly the kind of bold experiment that a novelist who takes his art seriously ought to make.

Specimen Days
by Michael Cunningham.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
320 pages. $25.


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