Michael Cunningham: Specimen Days – review

Here follows another transcript of a book review I’ve done for the University Radio, translated here into English:

Mechanics, the machin-like, movements that happen automatically are death, and man’s struggle against the mechanic is the main theme in Michael Cunningham’s latest novel Specimen Days. The book consists of three short novels and through these three one is confronted with the past, present and the future of the human race and their relation to the machine. The human being is in all three stories represented by three individuals: A man, a woman, and an invalid child, who always bear variations of the names respectively Simon, Catherine, and Lucas, and all three stories take place in New York.


specimen days

The first story takes place in the late 19th hundred, just as the industrialisation has gotten a firm hold of the western world, and the story’s main character is the deformed 13-year-old Lucas who has just taken over his older brother Simon’s job in a factory, after Simon got killed in an accident – he simply got pulled into the machine and crushed. The monotone nature of the job makes the slightly mentally disturbed Lucas drowsy, and this is when he makes an important discovery: He hears a distinct sound coming from the machine:

 “He listened carefully. It might have been the squeak of an unoiled bearing, but it sounded more like a voice, a tiny voice, though its words were indistinguishable. It had the rhythm of a voice, the rise and fall and rise again suggesting intention rather than accident, the tone implying a certain urgency more human than mechanical, as if the sound were being made by some entity struggling to be heard.” 

Soon the eerie truth dawns on Lucas: It is a voice that he’s hearing from the machine, and it belongs to his dead brother: 

“Simon was imprisoned in the machine. It made sudden, dreadful sense. He was not in heaven or in the pillow; he was not in the grass or in the locket. His ghost had snagged on the machine’s inner working; the machine held it as a dog might hold a man’s coat in its haws after the man himself had escaped. Simon’s flesh had been stamped and expelled, but his invisible part remained, trapped among the gears and teeth.”  

Lucas realizes that his mother, who’s gone insane with grief after Simon’s death, is right when she claims that she can hear Simon singing when she plays her music box, and that this is the reason why she cannot let go of her dead son: She surrenders to the machine-like pseudo-beauty of the music box. The machines are passageways to the realm of the dead, in machines and the automatic Death is to be found, and its strength increases as the machines multiply and demands more and more victims. This is the unpleasant idea that transcends the novel, and the human being is struggling to break free from the machines. The most sinister vision is the one found in the second novel of the three, the one that takes place in the present; The Children’s Crusade in which Cat, a forensic psychiatrist, is struggling to get to the bottom of the case of a children’s group of terrorist, who, in their own twisted way, try to stop the count-down to the complete automation of the world. We find this automation one hundred and fifty years into the future, in the third part of the book, Like Beauty, in which the city of New York has been turned into an amusement park, completely devoid of human spontaneity. 

I have read Michael Cunningham’s previous novel The Hours numerous times, I love it dearly, and I was accordingly exuberant when I heard of this his latest edition, and I haven’t been disappointed. Specimen Days was a little hard to get through; it was particularly rough to have to take the painful step from the terrorised present into the last part of the book, the science-fiction, where everything seems so desolate, and where Simon the protagonist is not even a human being, but a very sophisticated robot. However, Cunningham’s loving approach to language and expression gives us a sense of hope when it’s attributed to a cyborg, and in the bleakness of the dystopia we catch a glimpse of hope for mankind when even one of its most cynical and nemesis-ridden creations has an experience of intense beauty, of togetherness, and of promise: 

“He dreamed that he stood in a high place. It was birght and windy. In the dream he could not determine whether he was on a mountain or abuilding. He knew only that he was standing on something solid and that the earth was far below. From where he stood he could see people walking across a plain. They were distant, and yet he could see them perfectly. There were men and women and children. They were all going in the same direction. They were leaving something behind. He could just barely make it out. It was a darkness, a bsens of gathering storm, far awat, shot through with flashes of light, green-tinted, unhealthy, small shivers an bursts of light that appeared and disappeared in the roil of cloudy darkness. (…) He hopes that they were going to something better. He imagined mountains and forests, rivers, a pure windswept cleanliness, but he could not see it. He could only see what was on their faces: hope and fear and determination, a furious ardency he could not put a name to.” 

This ardency is a main theme in Cunningham’s book, and as such it’s  is omnipresent in Specimen Days, and a very sympathetic, and subtly meta, point in the book is that Art is the ultimate expression of this ardency, this persistent will to live, to progress and move on. Art is represented in the novel by Walt Whitman, whom all the book’s main characters relate to in some way, the same way the three main characters of The Hours related to Virginia Woolf. Walt Whitman’s rambling poetic style bears significance in Specimen Days in that it represents the human, fallible beauty that remains, even when man has mechanized the world to the point of seemingly complete inanimation. “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death” and “Every atom belonging to you as good belongs to you” are some of the Whitman quotes that are repeated throughout the novel, and the main characters quote these sentences without fully understanding them, but that doesn’t matter, because as one of the characters from “The children’s crusade” states: You don’t get a message from poetry, you get a sense of beauty.  

Cunningham’s use of Walt Whitman is not quite as successful as his incorporation of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in The Hours. I think it’s a brilliant idea, this of Cunningham’s of using a beloved writer’s work as a point de depart. “A kind of sophisticated fan fiction with a lot of original characters” one might call it, if one wanted to put Cunningham down a little, but there’s really no reason for that, I think: In this post-modern (whatever that really means…) day and age where we reflect on literature as much as we do and set up and tear down canons of literature, I think it’s only natural that a writer should relate openly to already established works from their literary backgrounds. The problem in Specimen Days, if one was to point out a problem, is that Cunningham doesn’t seem to adopt Whitman’s voice as fully and well as he did with Woolf in The Hours, the literary style of which became a beautiful succession of and homage to the tradition of stream of consciousness. The Whitman quotations and references seem a little more superimposed in Specimen Days as regards composition and form, and The Hours remains my favourite Cunningham novel.

In the expression and thematics of the novel, however, Whitman’s elaborate idea of the beauty of world, untamed and stubborn like a sprout, is omnipresent, and it’s this persistent beauty that carries you through Cunningham’s at times deeply disturbing but always moving and consistent trilogy. Specimen Days is very recommendable.



January 25, 2007. Literature, Reviews.

One Comment

  1. David Murphy replied:

    For a refreshing review of Cunningham’s Specimen Days, click on http://davidmurph.wordpress.com/book-reviews/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Trackback URI

%d bloggers like this: