There's nothing quite as good as picking up the right book at the right time.
Michael Cunningham has been my favorite fiction writer since I read Flesh...moreThere's nothing quite as good as picking up the right book at the right time.
Michael Cunningham has been my favorite fiction writer since I read Flesh and Blood sophomore year of college. He is the perfect model of the value in writers of all genres starting with a solid foundation of poetry. Even his best-known novel, The Hours, is steeped in Virginia Woolf on every page. (I for one count Woolf as a poet above all, but I'll admit to personal biases there.) Cunningham's prose is, in a word, beautiful. The fact that this collection is devoted to the legacy of Walt Whitman makes it all the more so, as Whitman's unabashed jubilation, hyperbole, simplicity and specificity work their way through all the book's scenes and dialogue.
Specimen Days is a collection of three novellas, each taking the point of view of one of the three main characters: a princely man named Simon, a misshapen and damaged boy named Lucas, and a woman named Catharine who is slow to reveal her significant depth to the others. The novellas all start in New York City in various stages of history (the beginning of the industrial age in which Whitman wrote, a post-9/11 present, and a semi-distant future in which literal illegal aliens have come to Earth to perform service jobs), and end with the protagonist, in one manner or another, escaping the city.
I wrote before that I needed to reread this book because I hadn't known enough Whitman to appreciate it before. As it turns out, I also didn't know enough New York to appreciate it. Cunningham renders both beautifully, and has left me with a list of sites I need to visit to understand the strange history of this town. Central Park, the Bowery, the Navy Yard and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory all appear in each of the novellas, ebbing and flowing in influence over the characters as they did over the culture of the city.
What really stands out to me after this reading is the essential question Cunningham asks through the three novellas: what is the purpose of poetry in a world growing ever-more mechanized, isolated, and emotionally cold? Each story gives its answer, and I am enamored with all of them. Poetry, once deeply learned, speaks for us in moments when we cannot untangle our feelings enough to form our own words. Poetry is bone-truth, truth beyond rhetoric, truth proved by resonance. Poetry done right is the great equalizer: none of us understand it fully, but all of us may feel it fully.
It's a funny thing to write one's Ars Poetica in the form of a series of novels, but for Cunningham it seems to sense. He's a story-guy. So he's telling us stories about when and how poetry can matter, in prose which incorporates chunks of poetry and is pretty dang poetic on its own right. Works for me, Mike.
I love this book so much more on the second reading. I hope to come back for a third sometime, maybe when I know New York and Whitman in that way of bone-truth. For now it's a pleasure to have Cunningham's words buzzing vaguely in my ears and on my skin.(less)
I don't have much to say beyond a resounding "meh." Maybe I wasn't trying hard enough to find the moral in each story, which I thought was the point o...moreI don't have much to say beyond a resounding "meh." Maybe I wasn't trying hard enough to find the moral in each story, which I thought was the point of fairy tales? Or maybe the sensibility was just too foreign, and the drama of the plots eluded me. Or maybe these were just dark stories, and mediocre. I'm thinking something was probably lost in translation, both linguistic and cultural. Disappointing.(less)
Um... this is the first collection of short stories I ever enjoyed. They are absolutely beautiful. My beef with the genre as it was presented to me in...moreUm... this is the first collection of short stories I ever enjoyed. They are absolutely beautiful. My beef with the genre as it was presented to me in, like, high school, had to do with the inability of the author to create compelling characters in thirty pages or less. Amy Bloom blows straight by that problem on her way to Transcendent Fictionsville. Her characters are full and round and passionate, and generally both in love and in pain. The stories are subtly woven together which makes the reading experience of the entire collection very satisfying. Read this collection, even if you are embarrassed that you only know it because it was name-dropped on The L Word.(less)