Friday, June 29, 2007

Specimen Days

Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham is a beautifully written work. He structures the book into three distinct short stories—“Into the Machine,” “The Children’s Crusade,” and “Like Beauty.” Although these stories may very well stand alone as distinct narratives, they coalesce in such a way that allows Cunningham to label his work a novel (the full title of the book is Specimen Days: A Novel). The stories merge in location (New York), character names and relationships (Catherine and Simon, who are romantically involved and a young deformed boy, Lucas) and the evocation of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Each story is set in New York in a distinct time period—“Machine” takes place in the early days of the Industrial Revolution; “Crusade” in present-day NY and “Beauty” 150 years in the future—yet the consistency of characters allows the stories to melt together. In these stories, Cunningham satisfies the reader by hypothesizing various answers to the question “what if?” What if this character had died instead of that one? What if this character could be saved from his own self-destruction? If circumstances were different, would this relationship have worked?

Plot summary from wikipedia:

-The first short story, 'In the Machine,' is a Ghost Story. 'In the Machine' takes place in New York City during the Industrial Revolution, as human beings confront the alienating realities of the new machine age.

The principal characters include Lucas (a disfigured young boy), Catherine (a young woman who was to marry Lucas' elder brother) and Simon (Lucas' recently deceased elder brother).

-The second short story, 'The Children's Crusade,' is a Noir Thriller. The story is set in early twenty-first century New York City. The story plays with the conventions of the noir thriller as it tracks the pursuit of a terrorist band that is detonating bombs, seemingly at random, around the city.

The principle characters include Cat (an African-American woman working in a New York City police department), Simon (Cat's businessman boyfriend) and Luke (a child terrorist).

-The third short story, 'Like Beauty,' is futuristic Science Fiction. The story is set in a New York 150 years in the future. In the story, New York City is overwhelmed with refugees from the first inhabited planet to be contacted by the people of Earth.

The principle characters include Simon (an adult male cyborg), Catareen (an adult female alien lizard living as a refugee on earth) and Luke (a homeless boy).

In a book review in New York Magazine, Caleb Cain observes: “This ghost story […] sets in motion themes, images, and characters that are reincarnated in the two compelling tales that follow.” Indeed, Cunningham slightly alters his characters’ names and social status in keeping with their respective societies, all the while exploring the same relationships, albeit it from slightly different angles. “Lucas lives in 1870’s New York, and he fears that the dawning machine age has made Whitman’s wishful thinking about death come horribly true” (NY Magazine review). Lucas, suspicious of the animated machines that are gradually replacing the roles humans once occupied, fears that his dead brother Simon’s soul has been captured by a machine. In the final story comes full circle with the novel’s beginning, for here, the cyborg Simon truly is a soul captured inside of a machine, becoming increasingly human in his affections and affectations.

Throughout the stories, the reader senses the haunting presence of Walt Whitman, in fact the title itself is a Whitman reference. The talismanic evocation of his poems, particularly Song of Myself, first by Lucas, then by Simon suggests that the individual dissolves into a common humanity and world experience. Each story, each life experience is but a specimen of a larger, universal truth. With the progression of the stories, the characters are closer and closer to approaching this truth, culminating in the tender relationship between a cyborg and an alien (strangely, this seems much less weird than it sounds). The following oft-quoted lines illustrate this idea particularly well:

-It is you talking just as much as myself…I act as the tongue of you.

-I am large…I contain multitudes.

-I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

- Nobody really dies. We go on in the grass. We go on in the trees.

-All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Even after a bit of reflection, I can’t say that I completely understand this novel. I would have to reread it several times in order to fully appreciate its complexities. Cunningham is a gifted writer and although I may not have grasped all of Cunningham’s intentions, I truly savored his prose. I found myself thinking about the book often, longing for my evening reading time. The below passage from the first story is particularly beautiful and aptly illustrates the presence of Walt Whitman. Here, Lucas describes the pain of having injured himself in the machine:

After some time, a flower blossomed in Lucas’s mind. He felt it, and unfurling of petals, a transformation from bud to bloom. The pain was there still, but it was not in him anymore. The pain had left him as the spirit leaves the body of the deceased. It had made of itself a curtain, shimmering, as if curtains could be made of glass and the glass were veined with colors and tiny instances of light. The curtain hovered, fragile as glass, around Lucas and Catherine. It encircled them. Pain ran through it in capillaries of blue and green, of softest pink. Where it was most intense, pain produced watery quiverings of illumination, like light on a river. Pain surrounded them, and they were here, inside it.

Lucas didn’t think he slept. He didn’t think he dreamed. He was able, though, to see things he ordinarily saw in dreams. He saw that outside the pain curtain, outside the walls of the room, was the hospital, with its patiently damaged supplicants and its crying man. Outside the hospital was the city, with its houses and factories, its streets where Walt walked, m
arveling at everything, at smiths sweating over their forges and women strolling under feathered hats, at gulls circling in the sky like dreams the hats were having. Outside the city was the book, which invented what Walt saw and loved, because the book loved Walt and wanted to delight him. Outside the book…was there anything outside the book? Lucas couldn’t be sure. He thought he saw a distance, an immensity that was in the book and outside it. […] (85)