Michael Cunningham’s latest inhabits the same milieu as his last, By Nightfall: artistic sorts in contemporary (ish) New York. Our introduction to the book comes courtesy of Barrett, a gay man in his mid-thirties who has just experienced a break-up via text message. As he wanders home from a visit to the dentist (because he’ll be damned if he lets his teeth suffer as a result of the ex), he spots a light in the sky, a blue (whether aqua or teal will be debated later) ‘organic’ light that seems to look at Barrett as he looks at it (or maybe, he thinks later, he thought it was looking at him but it was looking at someone or something behind him). Across town, his brother Tyler, struggling with a drugs problem, wakes beside his girlfriend Beth, who is dying of cancer. They’d fallen asleep with the window open and it has snowed and the room is full of snow. Tyler gets up, ruminates, looks at the world, gets something in his eye. As the book progresses – as we hear from Beth and Liz, a close friend with a penchant for much younger men (she’s in her 50s) – the narrative subtly and obliquely turns on fairytale references, to Sleeping Beauty, to Alice in Wonderland. The Snow Queen, then, is a novel interested in ideas of transfiguration, in the relationship between cause and effect.
For instance, the morning after seeing the bright light, Barrett touches Beth as she sleeps. Later we learn that Beth’s cancer has miraculously vanished. If it was a miracle. Barrett isn’t inclined to think of it as such. He is inclined to think, though. About the light in the sky, about the consolations of faith. He starts to attend a nearby church. He tells people he is attending a nearby church. He expects an elderly priest to ask him what he’s doing but nobody speaks to him. Tyler, meanwhile, is worried about a song he’s writing for his wedding to Beth. Later he worries about whether the song was good enough (he knows it wasn’t; seems to blame people for saying it was any good). When he gets what he wants, he thinks he no longer wants it. Beth? Beth is out of it, discovering death; or back in it, wondering what life could be when she thought it wouldn’t be hers. She falls out with Tyler following a New Year’s Eve party, walks in the dark, leaving Tyler alone, relishing his aloneness. Cunningham also follows the other attendees of the party and we are offered brief glimpses into the future of all.
There is a tragedy, of sorts (which, when viewed from alternative angles, could be a gift, of sorts). The characters shift one about the other. In a recent interview, Cunningham played his book off against the original fairytale, saying one was a journey to reunite two siblings, and one (his) a journey in which two siblings come to realise they have to live apart. Like Richard in The Hours, Tyler is drawn to windows and the death by suicide in one book seems to cast a sort of flirtatious shadow over this one, Cunningham toying with us, will I make a second character meet his end this way? There are also echoes of A Home at the End of the World. The book is at its best when inhabiting the – what? dogged ruminations of its characters? (This is a Cunningham device, the – what? point at which a character angles to get a better of him or herself?) The transitions are shakier, the reader shifting uncomfortably between one head space and another. As with By Nightfall, you could argue that not much happens – and what happens actually happens off camera (cures and deaths). There are distractions. At times, it feels like you’ve wandered into a party and you’ve only just realised you don’t know any of the people (there is actually a specific scene in the book when this feeling comes to life – here are people, strangers, briefly, who other characters regard as friends – we see them once and then they are never spoken of again).
Staking its claim as the third book in as many months (alongside Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again at a Decent Hour and Nicola Barker’s In the Approaches) to engage with religion and faith and the apparent hole left by it, The Snow Queen is probably the neatest and most palatable of the three – and yet the ease with which it slips down makes it questionable in some way, as if its answers are too easy come by, as if the book is too shiny, all surface, lacking depth. When viewed alongside his last book it does seem to indicate an authorial narrowing that a book like Specimen Days or The Hours seemed to fly in the face of. It’s fine, don’t get us wrong; we just think Cunningham could do more.
Any Cop?: Pretty and pristine as the Snow Queen herself but lacking some fundamental fire. People as a rule don’t recommend ice-cubes.