Michael Cunningham’s best known work is The Hours, which won him the Pulitzer Prize. The character and writing of difficult literary genius Virginia Woolf was central to The Hours; and Cunningham has hardwired the verse of ecstatic American poet Walt Whitman into Specimen Days. It’s a triptych, with each of its three loosely connected sections written in a different genre and set in a different time. Cunningham’s self-stated goal was to attempt a novel in three genres that were new to him: the ghost story, the mystery, and science fiction.
‘In the Machine’ is a nineteenth-century ghost story, and its protagonist is a poor, seemingly handicapped boy who can speak only in Whitman quotes most of the time. This delicate soul is forced to become the family breadwinner and take a job in the Satanic factory that killed his older brother. What at first seems like a novelty, the boy’s channelling of Whitman, becomes increasingly powerful through the story. I suppose it’s something of a shortcut for Cunningham to propel his story with borrowed words from a great poet, but I don’t really mind when it’s this successful.
‘The Children’s Crusade’, the book’s second section, is a mystery set in present-day New York. The protagonist is a black female police officer whose job is listening to telephone threats. A suicide bomber, a young white boy, blows up a seeming stranger. Why? Again, there’s a Whitman connection. I won’t give anything away. This third of the book is a good hundred-page thriller, one that follows the precepts of the genre and still makes us care about the characters.
The third section of the triptych is ‘Like Beauty’, set 150 years in the future. The protagonist is an android, who flees from dystopian future-New York with a lizard-woman alien. Yep, it’s sci-fi alright. Cunningham says that he really wants to show respect for the genres he appropriates, and it could be argued that he shows too much respect here. The most valid criticisms of sci-fi apply here, that it so often is filled with intriguing detail while not giving real emotional satisfaction. Cunningham tries very hard to integrate a moving, human story into his sci-fi experiment, and the story is compelling enough, but ultimately it’s not as good as the preceding chapters.
Taken as a whole, Specimen Days is a funny old book. Because each section is largely discrete, it feels a bit like reading three hundred-page novellas rather than one 300-page novel, which may or may not be your cup of tea. ‘In the Machine’ worked up such a head of steam that I wanted it to keep going, but I suppose it’s good to be left wanting more. ‘The Children’s Crusade’ succeeded at creating tension, and I raced through it, as should be the case with a mystery. ‘Like Beauty’ was an interesting, well-written failure. There are much worse things to be.
Specimen Days, a fast, engaging, literate read, will teach you a lot about New York and the genius of Walt Whitman. It’s hard to find a more entertaining formal experiment.