By Michael Cunningham
Like Michael Cunnigham’s last book, the critically acclaimed The Hours, Specimen Days tells three thematically related stories. In The Hours the literary figure presiding over each of the episodes is Virginia Woolf, whose novel Mrs. Dalloway is always in the background. In Specimen Days the same role is taken up by Walt Whitman, with Leaves of Grass being the common text.
But exactly what Walt Whitman has to do with anything that’s happening in this book is hard to tell. To say that he is introduced awkwardly into each episode would be an understatement. When it comes to quoting Whitman it’s as though each of the three main characters has a poetic case of Tourette’s. In the first story, set in the nineteenth century, Whitman appears in the flesh before a boy who, for no apparent reason, has memorized Leaves of Grass and can’t seem to stop quoting from it (also for no apparent reason). In the second story, set in the present day, a group of orphan children have been raised to become suicide bombers. They are brought up in an apartment that is wallpapered with pages of Leaves of Grass, which makes them liable to randomly begin quoting Walt at the drop of a hat. And in the third story, which is also the best, set 150 years in the future, a cyborg escaping New York with an alien lizard-type creature has been programmed to – you guessed it – blurt out lines from Leaves of Grass. At least this time there is a kind of explanation (his creator apparently thought that cyborgs programmed with the works of great poets would “be better able to appreciate the consequences” of their actions), but it isn’t very convincing (why then, for example, does he have to keep reciting it out loud?)
The epigraph, which is also from Whitman, suggests that no matter how much things change (“new days and ways”) we will always be able to recognize “the same old human race”:
Faces and hearts the same, feelings the same, yearnings the same,
The same old love, beauty and use the same.
As the poet says elsewhere, time and distance avail not. And so the stories here are specimens in an experiment that tests the historical consistency and quality of human feeling. It’s obviously similar to The Hours in this respect, and also bears some resemblance to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Which makes the Author’s Note – where Cunningham explains that while there may have been some liberties taken with historical fact (in the first story), the result is at least “semi-accurate” – all the more surprising. “To the best of my abilities,” he writes, “I’ve been true to historic particulars I’ve set in the past.”
Why Cunningham would feel the need for such a note in defence of the veracity of a historical ghost story followed by a surreal modern-day thriller and a post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure is another of this book’s little mysteries.
There are ways in which the three stories are linked aside from Whitman’s poetry, including recurrent visits to the “Angel of the Waters” statue in Central Park and a strange antique bowl that keeps popping up, but the main connecting thread is the role played by Whitman’s proxies. They are damaged, outcast figures, mysterious and not quite human. In each story they attach themselves to an unhappy female companion. This makes for three odd, asexual couples, but their stories do have something common to say about the very different things – sacrifice, sympathy, understanding, and a weird kind of fulfillment – two people (or even a cyborg and an alien) can find in each other.
Specimen Days is a sometimes obscure book, alternatively flat and poetically written, but it does find new ways to explore the eternal queerness (using the word in Whitman’s sense, without any political connotations) of the “same old” human condition. Perhaps Whitman as cosmos contains that condition, or maybe he’s its prophet and guide. The old man has always been waiting for the next generation somewhere down the road.
Review first published online September 3, 2005.