Michael Cunningham’s fourth — and first post-Pulitzer — novel is the ambitious and entertaining SpecimenDays.The title, it helps to know, has been borrowed from Walt Whitman’s autobiography. So from the start we are clued in that, just as Virginia Woolf’s person and writing informed Cunningham’s third, wildly celebrated novel, TheHours,Whitman will be the writer-in-residence between these covers. SpecimenDaysalso shares its predecessor’s three-part structure. In this case, each of the three sections takes place in a different time period (19th, 21st and some dystopic future), makes use of three main names (Catherine/Cat/Catareen, Lucas/Luke and Simon), and is written in a different genre (19th-century social novel, contemporary crime thriller, and science fiction).
As if having to follow up an acclaimed novel and movie wasn’t enough pressure for any writer, Cunningham also shoulders the subject so many Novelists of Stature now feel obliged to address: 9/11. His approach is at once allusive and indirect and unmistakable. In New York, past, present and future, dread seeps into the streets, and no one is safe, not even mothers. And especially not children.
LikeBeauty,the third section, is a sci-fi escapade in which a post-apocalyptic New York has become a theme park, the middle of the country is still recovering from nuclear fallout, and the West is wild again. Christians are a political party and a “simulo” (a form of artificial human) named Simon who unaccountably, uncontrollably spouts, yes, Whitman works as a Central Park mugger-for-hire (on the payroll of an entertainment firm called Dangerous Encounters). When his friend and fellow simulo is snuffed out by a nasty hovercraft, Simon leaves New York for Denver, as directed by some chip in his hardware. Since he has endangered a nanny’s life simply by talking to her, he invites her along. The nanny, Catareen, hails from Nadia, the first planet found to have life on it which, when finally reached by earthlings, turned out to be a grim Neolithic culture inhabited by, well, lizards. Catareen is a four-and-a-half-foot-tall lizard with emerald skin and two-inch pewter-colored nails — in her own world, Simon deduces, she is probably beautiful. They are eventually joined by a pumpkin-headed, birth-defected Christian boy named Luke and drive cross-country in a radiation-powered Winnebago.
Cunningham locates and appropriates the distinct pleasures of these different genres: Small, palatable chunks of gloriously excessive Dickensian prose are delivered up in In the Machine;fast-paced suspense, plot twists and arch social commentary fuel TheChildren’sCrusade;and re-imagining the world in the sci-fi LikeBeautyis a contagiously fun exercise in dystopic satire — the insights witty, if sometimes cringe-inducing. Catareen’s human charges, for example, are named Tomcruise and Katemoss.
The connective tissue of SpecimenDaysis Cunningham’s prose, a mix of bold declamation, elegiac majesty, always agile sentences and finely wrought images. The Whitman material, while often lovely and startling when it appears, is not particularly integrated. Possibly a disclaimer is offered in the middle section when the woman named Walt tells Cat, ”Oh, I don’t think you get a message from poetry, really. You get a sense of beauty.” Still, the blurting of Whitman’s lines throughout the book seems mostly a writerly device.
The author has his themes — the martyrdom of children, the implicit disappointment of technology, humanity’s failure to make the world a better place, the insistent beauty of the natural world — but the justification for calling these three genre works a novel remains elusive. The similarly named characters, of course, can be seen as evolving souls, and a degree of progress can be traced via their successive incarnations. (Simon goes from being a ghost in the machine to an almost fully sentient machine. The Luke of LikeBeautyseems downright well adjusted, a normal kid compared to the desperate self-maiming boy in the first section.) These leaps up the karmic ladder are scarcely character development, however. The discrete sections do arc and land with notable skill, but the book comes to too many full stops and new starts which, combined with the half-baked and murky through-lines, fail to deliver novelistic depth and wholeness.
Cunningham is not alone among literary writers exploring different genres between the same covers. SpecimenDayscalls to mind another contemporary adventures-in-genre-writing, David Mitchell’s CloudAtlas,which similarly contains a crime drama, a science-fiction dystopia, and a 19th-century prose piece. But Mitchell’s book, even as it similarly sacrifices character development and overall dimensionality to its constant takeoffs and landings, attempts to solve the dearth of connectivity with an ambitious structure. Cunningham, on the other hand, relies on his own brand of lush lyricism to carry us through. And indeed, SpecimenDaysis readable and often highly entertaining and will no doubt engender numberless champions. The narrative force is often propulsive, the writing intelligent, frequently funny, if occasionally hokey and grandiose, and always festooned with lyric jewels. Whatever else can be said about this wildly ambitious book, Cunningham’s mastery of the sentence and beautifully wrought image is never, ever in question.
Michael Cunningham will read at Dutton’s Brentwood on Sunday, June 19, at 2 p.m., and at 826LA, 685 Venice Blvd., Venice, at 5 p.m. (RSVP and $20 tickets at 310-305-8418 or info@826LA.com). He will also appear at the Los Angeles Public Library, 630 W. Fifth St., on Monday, June 20, at 7 p.m.