Michael Cunningham – Specimen Days

Posted on | October 3, 2010 | 12 Comments

Michael Cunningham's Specimen DaysI absolutely adored Cunningham’s The Hours, and couldn’t wait to read another book by Cunningham. And then – then I saw the cover of this one, and I was in love! I knew I just had to read the book. And so, I did.

Essentially, Specimen Days is a collection of three novellas, as opposed to one novel. Like The Hours, there are three inter-linked stories, and like The Hours, a famous literary persona makes an appearance (in this case, it’s Walt Whitman).

However, unlike The Hours, this novel is set in entirety in New York, and it’s set across time. The first story goes back to the era when Whitman was still alive, during the time of the Industrial Revolution; the second story is almost current-day set in a post 9-11 New York haunted by terrorist threads and the final story is set in a futuristic society of half-humans and aliens.

In an almost Cloud Atlas-esque fashion though, the protagonists across the stories seem to be re-incarnations of themselves. There’s Simon and Catherine (Cat, Catareen) as the two adults and Lucas (Luke) as the adolescent. A bowl makes a reappearance across the ages as well, as does the poetry of Walt Whitman.

The first story, In The Machine, is set during the time of the Industrial Revolution (nineteenth century), where Lucas, a young boy, starts working in the factory where a terrible accident led to his brother’s unfortunate demise. Lucas, who spouts Whitman (a present-day poet at the time) incessantly, reaches the haunting conclusion that the machines are evil and are trying to pull the living in, as they did to his older brother (Simon). His innocence and adamance is almost heart-breaking as he tries to convince Simon’s fiancee, Catharine, to stay away from the “machine.”

And then we move to The Children’s Crusades, where Cat plays the leading role, as a woman who is a police psychologist. Amidst other things, she mans the phone line where would-be terrorists and assassins call up and drop hints about potential upcoming bombs. The latest set of terrorism seems to be coming from a group of children, who quote Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, hug a random stranger, and then the bomb detonates…

Finally, there’s Like Beauty, set in a post-apocalyptic New York, swarming with aliens and androids. Simon, an alien, who is programmed to recite Whitman at the unlikeliest of times, runs away with Catareen, a lizard-like alien, in search for the man who created him. They take a trip across the country, along with Luke, and manage to find a place on a spaceship that will take them to paradise – a different planet.

The characters are wonderfully drawn across all three stories, and the rapport between them is extremely real. Some of them are outsiders, whereas some of them are searching for a place where they belong. The way things are described had me nodding along in agreement, specially in the second novella.

“Look around,” she said. “Do you see happiness? Do you see joy? Americans have never been this prosperous, people have never been this safe. They’ve never lived so long, in such good health, ever, in the whole history. To someone a hundred years ago, as recently as that, this world would seem like heaven itself. We can fly. Our teeth don’t rot. Our children aren’t feverish one moment and dead the next. There’s no dung in the milk. There’s milk, as much as we want. The curch can’t roast us alive over minor differences of opinion. The elders can’t stone us to death because we might have commited adultery. Our crops never fail. We can eat raw fish in the middle of the desert, if we want to. And look at us. We’re so obese we need bigger cemetery plots. Our ten-year-olds are doing heroin, or they’re murdering eight-year-olds, or both. We’re getting divorced faster than we’re getting married. Everything we eat has to be sealed because if it wasn’t, somebody would put poison into it, and if they couldn’t get poison, they’d put pins into it. A tenth of us are in jail, and we can’t build new ones fast enough. We’re bombing other countries simply because they make us nervous, and most of us not only couldn’t find these countries in a map, we couldn’t tell you which continent they’re on. […] So tell me. Would you say this is working out? Does this seems to you a story that wants to continue?”

The title itself is inspired by one of Walt Whitman’s works – something I’m not very familiar with, which makes me feel slightly guilty, for I don’t think I missed a lot in the book. Some of the references though seemed unnecessary, but I think that might be a result of me not really seeing the whole picture, as I’m not well-versed with Leaves of Grass, or much of Whitman’s work/thoughts.

Have you read Specimen Days? Or any other Cunningham?

If you’ve read Specimen Days, do you think knowing a lot more about Whitman’s work would improve the reading experience manifold?


12 Responses to “Michael Cunningham – Specimen Days”

  1. She
    October 4th, 2010 @ 2:09 am

    This sounds really good. I loved The Hours movie but have never read the book. It seems like both The Hours and Specimen Days are fantastic. I like the idea of these interconnected stories with a common link in an author– Need to get on this!

  2. JoAnn
    October 4th, 2010 @ 2:50 am

    I loved The Hours, as well as his earlier book A Home at the End of the World. Have been meaning to read Specimen Days for some time… your review makes that likely to be sooner rather than later. And what a gorgeous cover! I haven’t seen that one before.

  3. Erin
    October 4th, 2010 @ 2:59 am

    I adored The Hours and can’t wait to get my hands on Specimen Days! I only skimmed your review, so as not to ruin anything (just in case!), but it sounds like you loved the new one. I’m looking forward to reading it!

  4. Joanna
    October 4th, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    This sounds amazing! I loved The Hours too (although I hated Mrs Dalloway, go figure!) and I’m a huge David Mitchell fan. I shouldn’t really be buying books right now, but I’m not sure I can wait…

  5. Steph
    October 4th, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

    I tried reading this a few times and I just couldn’t get into a groove with the first story. I found the language really alienating and I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. I was so disappointed (mostly with myself) because I really enjoyed The Hours and would love to read more Cunningham.

  6. Thomas at My Porch
    October 4th, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

    I had a similar experience as Steph. I had a hard time getting into the first story. I let it sit for months. However, when I went back to it I really got into and ended up reading it all in one sitting. I ended up quite liking the whole thing.

  7. Claire (Paperback Reader)
    October 4th, 2010 @ 11:00 pm

    Isn’t the cover beautiful? I love horses and think it is really striking.

    I have a fair knowledge of Whitman but not sure how much I’ll miss… I read Paper Towns by John Green earlier this year, which relies quite a bit on the reader’s knowledge (which I had) of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; I think I would have enjoyed it still without that grounding and suspect the same of Specimen Days.

    I am very excited about the UK release of By Nightfall but I think I should read this (and possibly reread The Hours) whilst I wait.

  8. Kinna
    October 6th, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    I also loved The Hours. I have one of his other books on my shelf. But this really sound goods to me especially since I like to read short stories and connected stories. Thanks for the review. Although I’m a bit of a poetry fan, I’m not very familiar with Whitman beyond his more widely known poems.

  9. Jodie
    October 6th, 2010 @ 11:46 pm

    I thought that was a unicorn on the cover when I first looked :) This book sounds like an interesting concept, with interconnecting, possibly reincarnating characters and the prose sounds sharp in the passage you quoted. Just got to brave Cunningham’s fearsome reputation now.

  10. anothercookiecrumbles
    October 10th, 2010 @ 11:20 am

    @She : I’d recommend them both, although The Hours, I thought, was miles better. I haven’t seen the movie though.

    @JoAnn : The cover really makes you want to read it *now*, doesn’t it? I’ve not read A Home At The End Of The World, but it’s on my list. Hope you enjoy Specimen Days :)

    @Erin : Hope you enjoy it. Need to emphasise that I thought The Hours was much better, but this is still very written, and an enjoyable read.

    @Joanna : lol, there’s no harm in buying books… I found Mrs. Dalloway a difficult read, but loved the feeling of accomplishment once I’d finished. Also thought reading The Hours after reading Mrs. Dalloway made it so much better.

    @Steph : I’m sorry to hear that – luckily, I didn’t face the same issue. I guess Cunningham might’ve been trying too hard to get the Industrial Revolution setting down, but… I don’t know? Maybe you need to go back to it someday – as ‘Thomas at My Porch’ says in the comment after – the second attempt went much better?!

    @Thomas At My Porch : Glad to hear that the second attempt was a successful one. I didn’t read the book in one sitting, which was surprising considering it wasn’t very chunky, but… I did still enjoy it, and guess at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

    @Claire (Paperback Reader) : It was love at first sight for me – that cover was! Funnily enough, I just finished Paper Towns a week or so back, and I enjoyed it despite not knowing much about Whitman. Not read anything based on Whitman knowledge before, so reading two such books, almost back-to-back was weird! I’m yet to read A Home At The End Of The World as well, which I’m looking forward to, and then, like you, read By Nightfall.

    @Kinna : I don’t think you need to know much Whitman to enjoy the book, but if you did, your reading experience might be more enjoyable? I don’t know… that’s what I thought when I finished the book. Hope you like the book, and I look forward to your thoughts on it.

    @Jodie : lol, I love unicorns! If it was, this would be my favourite book cover of all times!! His writing is surprisingly easy, and fast-paced as opposed to verbose and challenging, so I think you’d get on well with his works.

  11. Jeanie
    October 10th, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

    I just put the first chapter of By Nightfall on my Kindle – I’m looking forward to reading it!

  12. John Green – Paper Towns : another cookie crumbles
    October 25th, 2010 @ 8:10 am

    […] two months ago, I’d say no, but – I’ve read about three books in the recent past (Specimen Days, Paper Towns and Tipping the Velvet) with numerous Whitman references, which makes me wonder. And […]

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