Books You Really Should’ve Read By Now (Number: #8,684,595): Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham

There are writers who are widely perceived to be defiantly intellectual, whose every thought and word is up for endless examination and re-examination, to the extent that various critics and analysts can argue ad infinitum about what a book was actually about (JM Coetzee is a good example, and his latest Slow Man). And then there are writers who are thoughtful, capable of investing their work with a degree of otherworldliness such that – to an average reader like myself – their books feel to be rich with implied wisdom (such that if I stretch myself and think a leetle bit harder than I normally do I will be rewarded with all manner of revelations: Michael Cunningham is of this latter variation, and Specimen Days is a vivid example of his style. What we have here are three self-contained novellas, each of which subsequently echo the preceding tales. All three feature characters called (approximately) Catherine, Lucas and Simon (and Catherine or Lucas or Simon in one story may be connected, however distantly, to Catherine or Lucas or Simon in a subsequent story), and all three stories unravel in New York at different moments in history (and future-history).

The first novella, ‘In the Machine’, occurs ‘at the height of the Industrial Revolution’. There is a young, possibly deformed boy called Lucas who – following the death of his brother Simon in a factory accident – is to take up his brother’s job (and work at the very machine that killed his brother). Lucas has a bit of a thing for Catherine, his brother’s fiance and not-even widow. In the clank drone and hiss of machinery, Lucas – a savant spouting Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in place of words that would speak his heart – thinks he hears the voice of his dead brother. The piece climaxes with a terrible fire in the place where Catherine works (a deliberate echo of 9/11, as ladies in complex gowns fall flaming from the impossible upper reaches of the building). This fire recurs in the second novella, ‘The Children’s Crusade’, as Cat (who is a police, taking calls from people threatening to commit terrorist atrocities all the live-long day) researches the latest in a vivid new onslaught of terrorist atrocity – children, weaned on Whitman, attach themselves to strangers and explode the bombs strapped to their chest. While her colleagues dismiss the phenomena as just one more fucked up thing, Cat has the wherewithal to glimpse how the future will be – and it is this future we are thrust into in the final novella, ‘Like Beauty’. Unfairly dismissed by US critics who find even literary sci-fi beneath them, the latter portions of Specimen Days centre upon a sentient cyborg called Simon and his attraction to a Nadian (who is a creature from another world) called Catareen. Against the backdrop of a world destroyed by the fall out from the childbombers, Simon and Catareen flee, looking for a world that will let them be. As with most sci-fi, you have to haul yourself up above the jargon of this new world in order to discover that what Specimen Days resolves itself to be is a kind of love story.

There are connections by the handful (horses recur, machines, flaming buildings spring immediately to mind), and each connection suggests something deep and profound and ever so slightly beyond my limited ken, but – for all that – Cunningham fashions a novel that fulfils and satisfies on whatever level you wish to approach it from. Over and above this, the writing itself – fluid and eloquent and frequently surprising – imbues what are already compelling narratives with a regal grandiloquence (you read and think – I’m never going to write another word again because the words I write won’t be as pretty as this). As with Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude so with this: if you haven’t read Michael Cunningham before, this will be the book that sends you scurrying with anticipation back to his earlier books.

Any Cop?: Nabokov said that all writing (irrespective of genre) falls into one of two camps: there is good writing and there is bad writing. Specimen Days is as good an example of good writing as you could hope to find in this day and age.

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