Photo by Richard Phibbs

Michael Cunningham’s fourth — and first post-Pulitzer — novel is the ambitious
and entertaining Specimen Days. 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, The Hours, Whitman will be the writer-in-residence
between these covers. Specimen Days also 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

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.

The first section, In the Machine, is set in a newly industrial 19th-century Manhattan. Simon, a young Irish immigrant, has just been killed by the die-press he operates at “the works.” His 12-year-old brother Lucas, a “misshapen boy with a walleye and a pumpkinhead and a habit of speaking [Whitman aphorisms] in fits,” is left to care for his utterly non-functional parents. The boy takes over Simon’s job and aspires as well to the affections of Simon’s fiancée, Catherine, a seamstress. In Lucas’ conversations with her (and others), Whitman uncontrollably erupts from his mouth, sometimes jarring with stunning appropriateness, sometimes with unsettling dissonance. (One imagines the writer poring over a long list of plum Whitman lines pinned above his desk.) A sensitive, prescient child, Lucas wanders Broadway, exalting in humanity, even meeting Whitman himself. He also locates Simon’s ghost in his machine. The dead, he decides, returned in machinery. “They sang seductively to the living as mermaids sang to sailors from the bottom of the sea.” This section’s gothic creepiness can get claustrophobic, but the story’s climax — a fire in an upstairs sweatshop quite like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire — brings stunning, resonant images of women in blue dresses jumping to their deaths. One woman poised to jump communicates to Lucas: “God is a holy machine that loves us so fiercely, so perfectly he devours us, all of us. It is what we’re here for, to be loved and eaten.”

The Twin Towers are already collapsed and cleared away by the time we enter the book’s second section, The Children’s Crusade, a fast-paced, profanity-punctuated crime thriller in which Cat, an African-American police psychologist, spends her days on the phone with criminals and crazies who feel the need to divulge their murderous aspirations. A divorcée (her marriage didn’t survive the death of a son, Luke), Cat lives in a depressing cramped apartment and dates Simon, an urbane, wealthy futures trader who collects art and fascinating girlfriends. The city is testy; a horse gallops riderless down Broadway and a new egregious strain of terrorist is emerging, children who run up to strangers, hug them and self-detonate. One of these nameless kids — he’ll choose the name Luke — is a scrawny, deformed boy who spouts lines from Whitman over the phone to Cat. Of his suicide mission he says, “We don’t die. We go into the grass. We go into the trees.” And later, “The smallest sprout shows that there’s really no death.”

Like Beauty, 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 The Children’s Crusade; and re-imagining
the world in the sci-fi Like Beauty is 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 Specimen Days is 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 Like Beauty seems 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. Specimen Days calls to mind another contemporary
adventures-in-genre-writing, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, 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, Specimen Days is 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.

SPECIMEN DAYS | By Michael Cunningham | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 305 pages | $25

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 He will also appear
at the Los Angeles Public Library, 630 W. Fifth St., on Monday, June 20, at 7

LA Weekly