Thursday, July 28, 2005


Michael Cunningham’s
Specimen Days (2005)

YOU have got to hand it to Michael Cunningham for writing such entertaining literary fiction. I am already enjoying his Specimen Days (2005) which I think is already among the year’s best and most original books. Clearly, Cunningham is not a safe, predictable writer, although on first looking at it, you'd think Specimen Days bears some structural resemblance to The Hours (1998), his celebrated novelistic homage to and wondrous reimagination of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) (originally titled The Hours). In his new novel, the quintessentially American poet Walt Whitman replaces Virginia Woolf as the unifying thread among three different genres, all set in New York City (“this glittering blighted city”), at three different historical periods. But thankfully the similarities end there. Specimen Days is more of a series of linked novellas than a novel in the conventional sense. The catch is that each novella unfolds as a different genre: a mid-19th-century story drenched in ghostly imagery, a 21st-century urban thriller and a mid-22nd-century science fiction. What can I say, this really is cool. I don't normally read science fiction or fantasy, so the science-fiction element of the novel was a bit jarring for me. But it is just me and has nothing to do with the novelist.

Cunningham’s fourth novel is truly an audacious departure from his family stories and literary triptych of old. And while the triptych or tripartite structure of the book may fascinate the most open-minded of readers, a trilogy of varied genres is sure to baffle many. Though the new novel may not be as engaging as The Hours, it is still a good read by itself. However, I must say that it is a more ambitious and lavish work compared to his past efforts, and to compare both the new book and its predecessor, perhaps inevitable, is unjustified. Despite its structure and bizarre plots, one thing's for sure though, Cunningham is a fine prose stylist with a spare, incisive and lyrical style that is indeed a pleasure to read. What he has crafted is an intellectually provocative and disturbing observation of contemporary society: its ruthlessness and folly and the disintegration of morality and humanity.

A woman sat at the rear, behind a glass counter. She was as wan and worn-looking as her merchandise. Her gray hair hung to her shoulders, and her face was vague, as if someone had drawn the features of a woman onto the front of her head and then tried to erase them. Still, she was queenly, in her ruined way. She sat erect, with a vase full of peacock feathers on her right and an oval mirror on her left, like a minor queen of the underworld, ruler of the lost and inconsequential.
Michael Cunningham, in Specimen Days (2005)

Only at these subdued moments could you truly comprehend that this glittering, blighted city was part of a slumbering continent; a vastness where headlights answered the constellations; a fertile black roll of field and woods dotted by the arctic brightness of gas stations and all-night diners, town after shuttered town strung with streetlights, sparsely attended by the members of the night shifts, the wanderers who scavenged in the dark, the insomniacs with their reading lights, the mothers trying to console colicky babies, the waitresses and gas-pump guys, the bakers and the lunatics.
Michael Cunningham, in Specimen Days (2005)

CUNNINGHAM Michael [1952-] Novelist. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S. NOVELS Specimen Days (2005); The Hours (1998: winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 1999 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction; shortlisted for the 2000 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award); Flesh and Blood (1995); A Home at the End of the World (1990); Golden States (1984) TRAVEL Land's End: A Walk Through Provincetown (2002)


Blogger Invisible Lizard said...

I randomly landed on your site, and I have to say: very cool design. Good stuff you've written here. I bought a copy of Specimen Days recently, but alas, I am a painfully slow (and meticulous) reader and am in the middle of a couple other books right now. I will likely not get to it for a while. But reading your review moved it towards the top of the list.

Saturday, August 06, 2005 5:43:00 AM  

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