Ohioan Michael Cunningham produced two well-received early novels, A Home at the End of the World (1990) and Flesh and Blood (1995), then expanded his range decisively with The Hours (1998). That moving novel, which juxtaposes Virginia Woolf’s final breakdown under the looming shadow of world war with emotional crises endured by two women of later generations, was widely and appreciatively read, won the PEN/Faulkner Award and Pulitzer Prize, and inspired an Oscar-winning film.
The method of The Hours is even more brilliantly employed in Speciman Days, Cunningham’s fifth novel, which tells three interrelated stories set in New York City in the historical past, near-present and imagined future. Each focuses on three characters: a physically or genetically deformed boy, a bereaved woman and a man whose fate influences, or is influenced by, their actions.
“In the Machine” is set in the post–Civil War years dominated by the rise of industrialism. In it, an Irish immigrant family’s son, Simon, is mangled and killed by a machine at an ironworks that subsequently also employs his 13-year-old brother Lucas, a stoical “misshapen boy with…a habit of speaking in fits.” These “fits” are verses from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which Lucas has memorized, and from which he infers a hopeful vision of eternal recurrence; human absorption into the universal; the faith that even amid death and dissolution, “We are part of something vaster and more mysterious than the living can imagine.”
Lucas’s relationships with the ghost of Simon that he hears “singing” in the machines and with Simon’s grieving fiancée Catherine (a seamstress and prostitute) is echoed, with imaginative variations, in two subsequent narratives. The Catherine of “The Children’s Crusade” is “Cat” Martin, a black forensic psychologist employed by NYC’s “Deterrence” squad to profile preadolescent suicide bombers, presumably parentless members of a deranged millennial “family” announcing the apocalyptic “end of days.” Cat forsakes the safety offered by her affluent lover, Simon (a broker who “trades in futures”), bonding with a dwarflike boy who evokes memories of her own dead son, leading her toward a “strange new life, of which he confides, “You're in the family now.”
The theme of escape from a destroyed planet is stated explicitly in “Like Beauty,” in which a scientifically created “simulo” (Simon), a lizard-like alien (Catereen) and a disfigured Jonah-like boy (Luke) meet, then separate—as other survivors of a nuclear “meltdown” are “setting out to colonize a new world.”
The use of several recurring images (an ornamental white bowl, a fire in a sewing machine factory) and Whitman’s visionary idealism superbly underscore a symphonic poem of sorrow, loss, survival—and hope: Cunningham’s finest novel, and one of the important literary achievements of the new century.