I knew little of Michael Cunningham’s work (I just knew that he wrote The Hours which was an Academy Award-winning film my parents loved) so I had no fixed expectations. I gave myself four days to finish this book but managed to do so in three days. That’s how captivating it was. Cunningham’s experimental fiction was masterfully told, like a musical composition that rises and falls with the right notes. In Specimen Days, he writes in three genres, dividing the book into three breathtaking novellas.
"A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child?… .I do not know what it is any more than he.” ~Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
(1) “In The Machine” A Historical Dickensian Tale
The first novella was written in the boy Lucas’ POV. It was set sometime during the industrialization age of America. Lucas’ brother Simon has just died and this left his fiancee Catherine uncared for and with child. Though aready shouldering the financial burden of supporting his parents, thirteen-year-old Lucas still felt it was his responsibility to watch out after Catherine. He was a peculiar boy, reciting Walt Whitman poetry as his way to express his feelings or to make conversation. Through Lucas’ narrations, Cunningham’s knack for weaving lyrical phrases is astounding. The paragraphs contain such breathless pacing and descriptive precision which magnified the strength of Lucas’ evocative insights about his surroundings as he tries to understand the concept of labor and death. He wants to de-mystify such adult concepts and it is Whitman’s poetry that guides him. At the very heart of it all, Lucas begins to explore the possibility that his brother’s soul was trapped inside the welding machinery that Lucas uses at his work in the factory. Believing that if men die and they spread out among the leaves and grass (as Whitman eloquently wrote), Lucas was convinced that ghosts dwell among the machinery across New York, including the sewing machine that Catherine tends to at her own workplace. He ventures on to save her.
For such a comical angle to the story, Cunningham was still able to approach it with great sensitivity, providing passages that brood over the simplest but unanswered questions about life which gives Lucas’ character a crushing sort of loneliness. He is a child who tries to make sense of the world by allowing poetry to fill the gaps. It’s a feat that manages to intensify the reading experience even more, and Cunningham drives it home by using Lucas’ “ghost” as an allegory of the American industrialization’s hovering presence, and the gradual withdrawal of human spirit from the organic towards the mechanical. Lucas’ belief of souls being trapped in the machines is a symbolism easy to pick up on, but Cunningham’s beautifully convoluted prose is rich with details that it was able to keep everything subtle. The climactic ending was even transitory to the next novella. Reading In the Machine was like stumbling in the dark, and trusting all the sensory directions given, but never truly seeing the big picture forming until the novel moves into the second story.
"And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."
(2) “The Children’s Crusade” A Detective Psychological Thriller
The sudden shift of genre by the second novella was not at all jarring. This time it was set on a post-9/11 New York with Cat Martin, a forensic psychologist, as a focus character. She works for a hotline division who handles calls from possible terrorists. She got a message from a young boy who talked about “the family” and recites mantras like "Every atom belonging to you as well belongs to me," which she recognized to be a verse from a Walt Whitman poem. Days after, news of child terrorists have spread across the city, claiming both the rich and the poor as victims of homemade bombs. At first glance, this story doesn’t have any sort of connection to the first one until the reader realizes that Cat was short for “Catherine” and her boyfriend’s name is “Simon” and she has a son named “Luke” whom she lost to an illness. But these are differrent characters with the same names and are a century apart from each other, yet Cunningham weaves these two stories—one of the past and one from the somewhat present—as a dissonance of worlds that are created through the choices of these three central characters. Whatever the boy Lucas from the first story feared about then, those ghosts he talked about, have now taken shape into something horribly concrete in Cat Martin’s New York where a heightened sense of paranoia and grief is exploited by a terrorist cell composed of children.
It was a detective story, hard-boiled and suspenseful with every turn of the page—right until the moment of a chance meeting between Cat and one of the child terrorists. In this story, Cunningham delves into the scarlet thread so immensely significant in detective stories and The Children’s Crusadebecame a harrowing tale that overflows with the twisted reflections of humanity’s fears. It was by this installment that I started to tear up completely because Cunningham has a way to string along certain phrases that provokes such a visceral, emotional response that a reader just surrenders without even knowing it. It was juxtaposed perfectly with In The Machine, especially since he used the three characters (Catherine, Simon and Lucas) as representations of man, woman and child; three aspects poignantly enhanced by the last novella.
"Fear not O Muse! truly new ways and days receive, surround you,
And yet the same old human race, the same within, without,
Faces and hearts the same, feelings the same, yearning the same
The same old love, beauty and use the same.”
(3) “Like Beauty” A Sci-Fi Love Story About Birth and Destination
The final novella was set 150 years in the future in New York. Humans have already made first contact with aliens and they are lizard life-forms called Nadians who are now living as refugees in planet Earth. They are domestic helpers, treated as secondary citizens and enslaved by mankind. Simon—a biomechanical cyborg—is the focus character, and he was programmed as a mugger in the New York streets, sought after by tourists who want to be victimized because of the adrenaline release it provides. He was captivated by a Nadian called Catareen whom he starts an adventure with when they decided to escape to Denver. On the road, they met a homeless boy posing as Jesus in a Halloween costume named Lucas. This story was the most challenging of the three because it was science fiction and there is always a strange pull with this genre that Cunningham was able to give justice to. Simon was a biomechanical conception; half-human and half-machine (a literal representation of Lucas’ ghost of a brother from the first story) and his ‘maker’ has included Whitman poetry in his software which he recites every time under duress. What follows after is a redemptive tale about the power of technology and a more humane understanding of how it can enrich lives instead of destroy them.
There is an enduring quality to the prose of this story that was magnified by the previous events from In The Machine and The Children’s Crusade. It seemed to me that these versions of Simon, Catherine and Lucas are products of the past and present colliding together to form a future defined by beginnings and endings that mirror each other. So many imagery and symbolism come full circle by this last story. Religious allegories were also used. I was listening to Death Cab For Cutie’s “Tiny Vessels” so I was positively imbued with emotions and sensations that can only be expressed in tears. It didn’t feel cheesy at all because it seemed like a perfectly acceptable response to cry about this book because of its overwhelming poetry in its vitalizing prose.
Overall, Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days is a treasure. As you read through, it feels like seeds are sprouting out from your heart and flourishes within, transforming you as a reader into a person more aware of transience and embracing its trappings.