In each section of Michael Cunningham's bold new novel, his first since The Hours, we encounter the same group of characters: a young boy, an older man, and a young woman. In the Machine is a ghost story that takes place at the height of the industrial revolution, as human beings confront the alienating realities of the new machine age. The Children's Crusade, set in the early twenty-first century, plays with the conventions of the noir thriller as it tracks the pursuit of a terrorist band that is detonating bombs, seemingly at random, around the city. The third part, Like Beauty, evokes a New York 150 years into the future, when the city is all but overwhelmed by refugees from the first inhabited planet to be contacted by the people of Earth. Presiding over each episode of this interrelated whole is the prophetic figure of the poet Walt Whitman, who promised his future readers, It avails not, neither time or place . . . I am with you, and know how it is. Specimen Days is a genre-bending, haunting, and transformative ode to life in our greatest city and a meditation on the direction and meaning of America's destiny. It is a work of surpassing power and beauty by one of the most original and daring writers at work today.
Just as Virginia Woolf haunts Cunningham's The Hours, Walt Whitman colors the novelist's latest effort. Specimen Days tells three stories, all set in Manhattan from different time periods, linked by characters with the same names and by Whitman's poetry. Whitman himself appears briefly in the 19th-century episode, the most moving and evocative of the three, in which a 13-year-old boy, the son of Irish immigrants, works in a factory. The second is set in the present and follows a police psychologist as she investigates a series of bizarre murder-suicides. The last occurs 150 years in the future: Manhattan has become a theme park, and tourists pay to be assaulted. Cunningham's themes never quite come into focus, despite his lyrical writing. Each section illustrates a genre (ghost story, police procedural, and sf) with which the author is not completely comfortable. On the other hand, Alan Cumming gives a brilliant and heartfelt, though never sentimental, reading. Recommended.-Michael Adams, CUNY Graduate Ctr. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Farrar, Straus & Giroux
August 31, 2005
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Excerpt from Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham
In the Machine
Walt said that the dead turned into grass, but there was no grass where they'd buried Simon. He was with the other Irish on the far side of the river, where it was only dirt and gravel and names on stones.
Catherine believed Simon had gone to heaven. She had a locket with his picture and a bit of his hair inside.
"Heaven's the place for him," she said. "He was too good for this world." She looked uncertainly out the parlor window and into the street, as if she expected a glittering carriage to wheel along with Simon on board, serene in his heedless milk-white beauty, waving and grinning, going gladly to the place where he had always belonged.
"If you think so," Lucas answered. Catherine fingered the locket. Her hands were tapered and precise. She could sew stitches too fine to see.
"And yet he's with us still," she said. "Don't you feel it?" She worried the locket chain as if it were a rosary.
"I suppose so," Lucas said. Catherine thought Simon was in the locket, and in heaven, and with them still. Lucas hoped she didn't expect him to be happy about having so many Simons to contend with.
The guests had departed, and Lucas's father and mother had gone to bed. It was only Lucas and Catherine in the parlor, with what had been left behind. Empty plates, the rind of a ham. The ham had been meant for Catherine's and Simon's wedding. It was lucky, then, to have it for the wake instead.