Fine Specimen

In The Hours (1998), Michael Cunningham melted into Virginia Woolf. Her aura welcomed and enveloped him. Beside his plainer prose, what he quoted of hers seemed a little overheated, but the contrast was refreshing, as if her style were a newly drawn bath that his novel stepped into, for the sake of relaxation, just prior to slitting its wrists. In his new book—a trio of linked novellas titled Specimen Days—Cunningham quotes Walt Whitman as amply as he once quoted Woolf. Although the relationship has the same near-death intensity, the chemistry is different. It isn’t clear that Cunningham likes Whitman, for one thing. The three novellas—a ghost story, a neo-noir tale, and a turn at science fiction—feel rather like attempts at exorcism. When characters quote the poet, they’re displaying not an affinity but a symptom. A self-destructive boy blurts out lines of Whitman’s verse as if they were the expletives of a Tourette’s patient or the calculations of an autistic. Terrorists cite Leaves of Grass to justify suicide bombings. A robot with runaway emotionality is irritated by an implanted poetry chip, which causes him to say, “I understand the large hearts of heroes, the courage of present times and all times,” to a surveillance drone considering whether to zap him into molten titanium and gobbets of artificial flesh.

Cunningham is hardly the first writer to be uncomfortable with Whitman. “All that false exuberance,” D. H. Lawrence complained in 1923. “All those lists of things boiled in one pudding-cloth! No, no! I don’t want all those things inside me, thank you.” Despite his fastidiousness, Lawrence saw the appeal of Whitman. No poet accepted the wildness of Eros more gladly. Whitman wrote as if he already lived in a society ruled by nothing but love and democracy, and Lawrence admired the frontier spirit of this imaginary “wide, strange camp at the end of the great high-road.”

It’s a camp that Cunningham has tried repeatedly to reach in his fiction. In A Home at the End of the World (1990), a gay man, his bisexual friend, and a straight woman try to raise a child in a mini-commune in upstate New York. In Flesh and Blood (1995), a drag queen and three generations of a Greek-American family live together, with a similar charming implausibility, in Manhattan and Long Island in the early nineties. But Cunningham’s campsites have a way of turning into cemeteries. Mother and child flee the upstate Utopia, leaving the hero with his own father’s ashes and two ex-lovers, one about to die of AIDS. Time accelerates at the end of Flesh and Blood so that every character dies but one, who on the last page scatters a gay couple’s ashes. In The Hours, the cozy bohemias of Virginia Woolf’s London suburb and late-twentieth-century Greenwich Village are punctuated by suicides.

Put Whitman’s lyric ideas into a novel, and you get a disquieting plot: Romantic freedom leads to nothing but death. Because people tend to read narratives as if the ending were the moral of the story, a defender of romantic freedom might be tempted to force a happy ending—to sentimentalize mere death. In such lines of Whitman’s as “to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier,” D. H. Lawrence heard a hint that the surrender of self at life’s end might qualify as a kind of salvation. “Post-mortem effects,” Lawrence called such thinking. He loathed it.

In Specimen Days, Cunningham seems to be trying to work through those effects. He quotes Whitman’s line about the luckiness of death several times. Like its predecessors, the new book ends with a corpse. The innovation is that it also starts with one. “Walt said that the dead turned into grass,” says 12-year-old Lucas, who has just lost his older brother to an industrial accident, “but there was no grass where they’d buried Simon.” Lucas lives in 1870s New York, and he fears that the dawning machine age has made Whitman’s wishful thinking about death come horribly true. What if Simon’s soul lives on in the machines that mangled him, and he wants to steal away his still-living fiancée, Catherine?

This ghost story doesn’t quite come off, because there’s not enough play between Lucas’s irrational fears and the narrative’s account of them. But it sets in motion themes, images, and characters that are reincarnated in the two compelling tales that follow. In “The Children’s Crusade,” Cat works for New York City in the jittery aftermath of 9/11, listening to people who telephone to threaten violence or to take responsibility for it. When a new terrorist movement breaks out, she talks to two boys who paraphrase Whitman to explain the innocence of their attacks: “Nobody really dies. We go on in the grass. We go on in the trees.” In the third novella, “Like Beauty,” Simon returns as a soul trapped in a machine, quite literally. He’s a robot with feelings, and like Blade Runner’s replicants and A.I.’s mechas, he sets out to meet his maker. He brings along an alien named Catareen, “a four-and-a-half-foot-tall lizard with prominent nostrils and eyes slightly smaller than golf balls,” who had been working as a babysitter in the Old New York theme park. Sci-fi on the surface, this novella comes closest to Cunningham’s classic subject, a relationship between a woman and a gay man. Simon may be a robot, but he wishes he could get closer to a colleague, Marcus, whose poetry chip is set to Emily Dickinson, and his quasi-romantic bond with Catareen supplies a touch of old-fashioned perversity—post-human effects, as it were.

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.

Fine Specimen