You may remember Michael Cunningham’s last book The Hours. In that book he takes the author Virginia Wolfe as his muse and intertwines her into three separate stories.
In Cunningham’s latest book, SpecimenDays, he takes Walt Whitman as his inspiration. Although this book is billed as a novel, it would be more accurate to describe it as a triptych of novellas, all of which share three common characters: an adult male character named Simon who first appears as a ghost, next as a wealthy businessman, and last as a “simulo” – an artificial human employed as a mugger in Old New York; an adult female named Catherine (Cat and Catareen) who is first the grieving fiancé of Simon, next an African-American police psychologist, and last a lizard-like alien; and Lucas (Luke), who is first a deformed poetry-spouting adolescent, next a seemingly hesitant child terrorist, and last a deformed and precocious adolescent prophet. All three novellas weave in both the poetry of Whitman and similar props, with New York City as the backdrop.
The first novella, “In the Machine,” throws the reader into a New York City in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. Lucas is a deformed, Whitman poetry-spouting, younger brother of Simon, who was recently killed in a horrible accident at a factory producing metal parts. Lucas takes a job in the factory, on the same machine that took his brother’s life, and quickly becomes convinced that he can hear his dead brother in the machines around him. Catherine, Simon’s fiancé, feels a loyalty to Lucas both because she was to be his sister-in-law and because of a secret she is keeping regarding her relationship with his dead brother. While there is also a sub-plot involving Lucas’ invalid father and possibly psychotic mother, one that exposes a moral dilemma and the harsh realities of Lucas’ life, as well as a chance meeting with the Poet himself, “In the Machine” is really about what Lucas believes he hears the machines saying, and what this message from his dead brother compels him to do. While the writing style of this novella may seem a bit antiquated, it fits perfectly the setting, producing the strongest of the three novellas, with an ending whose beauty rivals that of the opening chapter of The Hours.
“The Children’s Crusade” is a post-9/11 tale of Cat, a police psychologist, who becomes involved with a group of child terrorists by answering a hotline call at the New York City Police Department. The children are lead by a woman who calls herself Walt Whitman and has organized the league of child terrorists. Soon Cat is questioning everything, including her relationship with her rich businessman boyfriend Simon, and finds herself to be the only person who understands a young impressionable child she names Luke.
In “Like Beauty,” Cunningham wanders into the science fiction world in a tale of post- apocalyptic New York . Old New York has been preserved as a tourist trap where people can pay for the thrill of being mugged in Central Park . Simon is a humanoid robot who recites Whitman poetry randomly. Catareen is a Nadian – a green lizard-like alien – who helps him follow an unknown homing mechanism built into his circuits that tells him to go to Denver on a certain date. On the way, they meet a young prophet named Luke and the journey to a new life begins.
Michael Cunningham’s novel TheHours won the Pulitzer Prize and the Faulkner Award, and it was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film. While not as well woven a story as TheHours, Specimen Days is fascinating and, as are all of Cunningham’s books, extremely well written. It is available at local bookstores, online and at the Nashville Public Library.
by Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus and Girous, 305 pp., $25.00