Cameron's Reviews > Specimen Days

Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham
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Nov 05, 09

Read in October, 2009

They say Walt Whitman's beard drew butterflies. This book, I think, would probably draw something far stranger if left out in a field.

A triptych of tightly-wound exercises in genre--a Machine Age ghost story, a whodunnit set in the Patriot Act hysteria of the mid 00s, and a scifi roadtrip through a blighted America featuring lizard people--Specimen Days baffled the hell out of me. Is it an extended meditation on the machinations and strangeness of our bodies? A sly, Marx-friendly comment on how we dissolve into our occupations, often without a peep? A hallucinatory glimpse of the humanity behind "terror"? Is Cunningham just outing a long-dormant Blade Runner geekdom?

All these things?

I dunno. The title makes me think that Cunningham's aware of the Frankenstein nature of the book.

But, as other reviews note, Walt Whitman is the glue holding together the cobbled-together pieces of the book. Cunningham, I think, is jostling elbows rather uneasily with Whitman and his legacy of heavenly and bodily affinities. "For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you," once sang Whitman, and Cunningham finds not only solace and empathy in this declaration of our common lot, but also horror. In the novel's second act, orphaned boys become suicide bombers in New York City, quoting Whitman as they fatally embrace random strangers. Joining together the disparate, and "doing something" about the specialized, fragmented mess of our everyday lives, is both the theme and craft of Specimen Days. But Whitman's organic, circular nature of existence, and his view of death as something "different from what any one supposed, and luckier" seems to give Cunningham the willies. Death may really only be birth disguised, but Cunningham skews this revelation in interesting, not-entirely-comfortable ways: when people die in Specimen Days they return not as benign lyrical grass, but as oily ghosts, haunting phone calls, and alien corpses that must be buried.

In its uneasy relationship with its literary patron, Specimen Days is an interesting departure from the glowing, perhaps uncritical relationship Cunningham fostered with Woolf in The Hours. Cunningham's craft, too, has expanded here: he writes with abandon about a wide swath of humanity (and nonhumanity), and the result is dizzyingly pleasing. His characters are compelling, especially in the final two stories, I think. And his ability to shuttle between philosophical musing and plot advancement is inspiring, not ham-handed as some reviewers have complained. (Most fiction, I think, engages in existential inquiry and some degree of navel-gazing... it's just that Cunningham lets himself do it aloud, rather than letting the story's machinery do it for him, and occasionally I *like* to have little pithy axioms thrown out at me.)

While I think other books do a more complete job of teasing out the thematic threads present in Specimen Days (Evan Dara's The Lost Scrapbook comes to mind, especially, and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas does a better job juggling multiple genres, from what I've heard), few so honestly portray the odd weather of our interior lives. And few writers so incisively take the scalpel to specific moments in time and how events unfold before characters in slow, Brownian motion--the novel's title again comes to mind. And few writers have Cunningham's gift for pacing and pleasurable images. Highly recommended.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Gwynne (new)

Gwynne I can't wait to read this one now.

message 2: by Shawn (new)

Shawn Frankie Can you please tell me 3 ways that any two sections of this book both relate to a theme of Whitman from Song of Myself?3 ways that both the sections have in common, that relates to a theme of Whitman. Just having a little debate with a friend here. Any help?

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