on 26 September 2006
Michael Cunningham is a very talented writer. Focusing on themes of love and death, regeneration and survival, 'Specimen Days' is a cleverly structured, well-written triptych. The three sections are linked by three recurring characters, while Walt Whitman's poetry provides a continuity throughout that supports the regeneration theme. In many ways, the book reminded me of David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas'; structurally, thematically, and in the writer's skillful narration from different perspectives.
Although the first section is set amid the grinding poverty of mid-nineteenth century immigrant New York, the second in contemporary fear-stricken New York, and the third in a dystopic future-New York, this book is - ironically - profoundly optimistic. The settings are interesting and believable, and the lives of the characters compelling.
A good read.
I'm not sure what to really make of this book. The Hours is one of the best novels I've ever read. Specimen Days, then, has a lot to live up to. Cunningham navigates this relatively well by making it a completely different kettle of fish. Even though both novels are told through three separate strands united by common themes, this device works completely differently. Here, each new section adds another level to everything you think you know about the book, and in the end you really don't end up knowing much at all. So ambitious is the whole thing that you never really know where Cunningham is trying to hit. It isn't really very focused (is it about the relationship between man and the machinery he creates? Is it about duty? Is it about love? Is it about family? Is it about the simple act of living? Is it about the natural world, the ravages we put it through? Is it about sacrifice? Is it about fate? Is it about stories? Is it about time/history?) Cunningham passes his lens over so many little knots of meaning, and even though he does devote more time to some than others, there's a sense that he never delves deep enough into any single one.
Really, though, it doesn't matter and I didn't mind. I was quite happy just to be led through and briefly recognise little nuggets of meaning as they tripped past, savouring the relationships Cunningham gives his characters, the writing and the stories. It's not word too long, either, which is nice to see. Most novels nowadays are too long (less is always more; it takes more skill to condense than to expand, and success always gives a more powerful novel). I'm not really sure I'm capable of unwrapping the meaning of the book (if it even has a thread you can pull that will give its "meaning" - or even a few), but what it does do unquestionably is present a series of fascinating ideas and themes.
The verse of Walt Whitman is another recurring theme, and I was a little confounded by it. As a device it is integral to the meaning, but as part of the story it's unnecessary in the extreme, forced and a little self-conscious. I didn't really know what to make of all these characters spouting lines of poetry at random. If this is a "Whitman" book, and "The Hours" is his "Woolf" book, The Hours is far more successful. Though, admittedly, he is using Whitman for a different kind of thing. But the Whitman does see a little out of place at times, even if it does make for a nice way of commenting on relationship between inchoate art and the concrete human world.
Each novella is, individually, very entertaining and very well-written, the interaction between the characters is particularly good. Taken apart, they're very good indeed. Taken together, they are even more rewarding. It's not as good as The Hours, but Specimen Days is, though a bit of an enigma, an unfalteringly interesting and enjoyable book about humanity and its place in the world it has created.
on 11 June 2005
Michael Cunningham is best known as the author of "The Hours," the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel that went on to become an acclaimed movie starring Nicole Kidman as Virginia Wolf, the book's literary muse.
In his latest novel, "Specimen Days," Cunningham once again turns to a long-gone master of words-the great American poet Walt Whitman-for inspiration.
The result is a volume of three interwoven tales, each laced with deliciously fluid lines from Whitman, including two that recur, hauntingly, throughout: "...for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you" and "...to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier."
Throughout the book, characters are obsessed with Walt Whitman, and several quote his prose compulsively while traversing the city of New York over the decades, from the Industrial Revolution to the future. In the first section, the Whitman-obsessed is a deformed child named Luke who works in an ironworks factory and is in love with his dead brother's seamstress fiancé. In the second section (which takes place the present day) the Whitman-quoter is another deformed child, one who has spent his life trapped in an apartment with walls covered in the pages of "Leaves of Grass" and has been raised to be a terrorist. The third section delves into science fiction, with a Whitman-programmed character who is half-human, half-robot, and travels across a radiation-wasted United States with an alien companion.
Readers will be appalled and fascinated at the possibilities raised: Is technology dooming the planet? Will things become even more unsafe for everyday citizens? If we find life on another planet, will we be disappointed?
"Specimen Days" is disturbing, yes, but impossible to give up on, even for the squeamish. Michael Cunningham's imaginative stories are irresistible even when they are nightmarish, and his writing is lyrical and filled with gorgeous imagery and turns of phrase. A wonderful book, but try it for yourself! Pick up a copy. Another book I need to recommend -- very much on my mind since I purchased a "used" copy off Amazon is "The Losers' Club: Complete Restored Edition," an odd, compelling little novel I can't stop thinking about.
on 11 September 2009
This is the first Michael Cunningham book I've read, attracted to it both by the reviews and its subject matter of New York past, post 9/11 present and future, embracing historical and gritty contemporary fiction as well as sci-fi as well as interweaving Walt Whitman, the archetypal American poet and a man apparently that continues to speak to people of all ages. While the first novella set during the Industrial Revolution and commenting on the close but ultimatley perilous relationship between man and machine, was to me the most successful, the second novella was also a very affecting story of two outsiders trying to make sense of New York life post 9/11, even if for me the characters were not entirely plausible (and a tad complacent). However, the final story set in the future completely lost me and worse left me cold.
However, I admired Cunninghmam's ambition and left me in no doubt about his skills as a writer. He writes with care, fluidity and lyrical precision and for the most part, reading him was a joy.
I can see why Specimen Days would leave fans of his previous work cold as it seems this is strikingly different and bold new territory. Either way, for me this was a good introduction to a very talented writer and I look forward to reading more of his work.
on 28 July 2005
Michael Cunningham's new novel Specimen Days is a profoundly disturbing and deeply disconcerting meditation on the state of humanity. With it's universal themes of man against the machine, and its vision of a dark, socially fractured, almost hopeless future, the novel takes the reader on a foreboding journey, a bleak ride through three different time periods, each fraught with chaos, unease, and turmoil, and poses a vision of a future society that is far from utopian.
Divided into a triptych of three different stories, Specimen Days transports the reader to New York in the of the 19th century at the height of the industrial revolution, a post 9/11 New York in the 21st century still coping with the terrible machinations of terrorism, and a startling future world, 150 years hence, where New York has been transformed, where society is post-apocalyptic, and where humans, machines, and even the new immigrants - the extraterrestrials - are all living together in an uneasy dance of tolerance.
The stories are connected by the poetry of Walt Whitman and each chapter unfolds as a different genre: ghost story, thriller, and science fiction. Specimen Days also follows three characters, Luke, Simon and Katherine, through almost three hundred years of human history, as they are gradually transformed by the world around them.Their journey is one of self- knowledge, where they must realize that we are "part of something vaster and more marvelous than the living can imagine."
The first story, In The Machine, finds finds Simon, Catherine, and Lucas at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Simon has just died after getting caught in the machine he manned. His 12-year-old brother, Lucas, is left to take on his job to support the family, while Catherine mourns her fiance. Lucas, "a changeling child, goblin-faced with a frail heart and mismatched eyes," steadily becomes more obessessed with the machine, eventually hearing a voice inside it.
Lucas believes that the machinery has somehow devoured Simon and that his brother dwells among its cogs and wheels. But the more he works at the machine, the more he becomes aware of the sound of the machine; it becomes his portal, the window he whispers through, singing the living through the mouth of machine. As he loads the plates onto the best, he realizes that the machines are not inanimate, but that they are part of a continuum and he wonders if machines can lose track of themselves, let their caution lapse so they could take our hands with loving firmness and pull us humans in.
Just as we witness the terrible consequences of Lucas' obsession, we are rushed forwards into the second story. In The Children's Crusade, the terrorest threats to New York have not gone away, and Cat, an "exotic specimen," now a no-nonsense, ultra competent African-American police psycholgist, is racing against time to find a group of children who have become potentional suicide bombers. This section of the novel is a total thrill ride from beginning to end, as a child is witnessed hugging a startled businessman at ground zero then detonating - It's a terrible sign of what is to come.
When Whitman's poetry appears on the wall outside Cat's apartment door, she knows that the machinery of the city, the immense discordant poetry of the city is being rocked along its filaments. While she tries to hunt down the killers, Kat, disillusioned and wracked with worry, ponders the whole struggle between order and chaos and she realizes that it has no beauty to it, no philosophy or poetry, "in a world where death itself feels cheap and easy." In Kat's New York, no one is safe, not even mothers," not even the people who are willing to sacrifice everything in the name of love."
In Like Beauty, the final section - and perhaps the least successful - the results of our first contact with alien life are described. Set about 150 years in the future, the world is now a vastly different place, There has been some kind of nuclear meltdown, we now share the planet with aliens, refugees from the planet Nadia, and Simon is now an an artificial human implanted with verses from Whitman.
Kat is now Catareen and is "a four-and-a-half-foot-tall lizard with prominent nostrils and eyes slightly smaller than golf balls." Escaping the wrath of the newly elected Chistian council, Catareen and Simon escape New York for Denver, where Simon tries to find the elusive "beauty" that has been missing from his life. Simon and Catareen eventually establish some kind of connection, even though they couldn't be more different. In their way, they are as alive as any two humans, "as any two leaves of grass." But as Simon grows to care for Catareen, he is in danger of sacrificing his future, much as the original Simon sacrificed his life to the machine.
As the lives of Katherine, Luke, and Simon gradually unfold, the story keeps re-telling itself with various themes and ideas linking the parts together. There's the New York setting, physical deformity, the death of a central character, mismatched lovers, the purchase of a bowl, June 21st, and the poetry of Walt Whitman, which is constantly embeded and instilled so reverently in the narrative.
Cunningham is dealing with some big isses here. Obviously life, death, and the human continuum are central themes of Specimen Days, but the author is also interested in exploring where humanity's often uneasy relationship with technology, terrorism, and the fully mechanized world will go. Like Whitman, Cunningham believes that we are part of something vaster and more marvelous than the living can imagine, maybe it's some kind of spiritual plane where God is perhaps a holy "machine" that loves us so fiercely, so perfectly, that "he devours us, all of us." Mike Leonard July 05.
on 27 April 2013
The fact that this novel is written in three parts, all completely different regarding time, but so interconnected in other ways, is a very interesting method you don't come across too often. These three separate and yet connected novellas gradually increase in quality and by the end of the second, expectations are high, and do not disappoint.
Even though the second story is the closest to us in time and reality (mine at least), the third feels emotionally more alive and real.
The prose is very fluid and free, not forced in any which way, but somehow very developed. The way metafiction is used (in this case introducing Walt Whitman's work) in such a simple way and making it so innate to the stories, is an accomplishment all on its own as it travels through boundaries of time, social classes and even species.
Three literary genres in one, a pleasant surprise!
on 11 August 2006
I did not expect to be as captivated by this book as I came to be in sheer minutes since turning the first page.
As a narrative, it takes you on a journey through time, through the eyes of three different characters - a boy, a young woman and a man - all experiencing different things.
Walt Whitman and a china bowl are the strings binding them together.
Heartlessness is a word that perfectly describes the world around them, whether it is past, present or future. Their voices are intricately united however, and there is no dissonance in the text.
For those looking for a theme, why could the beauty of life not be the answer? It is what Walt Whitman celebrated; it is what poor little Lucas with his heart condition speaks of in his fits; it is what the children's crusade sets Cat onto finding about; it is what a man's implant makes him churn out of the blue.
An immensly enjoyable read, deserving its every penny and then some.
on 6 November 2008
Michael Cunningham's novel, The Hours, was a thoroughly enjoyable read and was made into one of my favourite movies of all time starring three of my favourite actresses: Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore.
Specimen Days is an odd novel. Essentially it comprises three separate stories set in the past, present and future but with the 3 central characters turning up in each story in a different guise. But whereas in The Hours Mr Cunningham skilfully and beautifully weaves the stories together, in Specimen Days they can almost be regarded as standalone novels. That said, Specimen Days is bold and atmospheric and Mr Cunningham's prose is as beautiful as ever, but I must confess I did struggle to finish the book.
on 9 May 2011
Beautifully written but this kind of post-modern novel never really engages me. (If you liked, rather than admired the cleverness of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas then you're far more likely to get along with it than I am.) Part supernatural ghost story - part post-9/11 suicide bomber thriller - part sci-fi ... I made it through to the end, but couldn't escape my irritation at being fed so much politically right-on message. Wrong book for me but for the right reader this could be a five *.
on 24 July 2005
Having revelled in The Hours, I eagerly grasped a copy of Specimen Days when it appeared. Unfortunately, it did not deliver. Whereas The Hours is a magnificent blending of lives and times, Specimen Days is a rather odd creation.
There are three separate stories, each set in a different time period, essentially past, present and future. They are linked by the central characters who turn up in different guises, and by the verse of Walt Whitman. However, it is diffiult to relate to the characters in their disparate forms, and when they emerged as some type of reptilian beast in the final story, I rather lost any feeling I had had for them.
It may be that devotees of Walt Whitman will find this novel to their taste, but I found it a disappointing read.