The Hours

by Michael Cunningham
ISBN: 0312243022

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A Review of: The Hours
by Cindy MacKenzie

As evidenced by the change in cover design that now features three "superstar" actresses, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman, the release of director Stephen Daldry's highly lauded 2002 film adaptation of Michael Cunningham's The Hours has promoted a resurgence of interest in the 1998 Pulitzer-prize winning novel. Unlike so many adaptations of book to film, the two forms of this novel are, in fact, highly complementary in their sensitive and beautifully-wrought treatment of the dark terrains of madness, depression, and homoeroticism that inform the pervading theme of love. So, if you've seen the film, do not hesitate to read the book (or vice versa)- you only stand to enrich your understanding and admiration of both the story and the author's artistry in telling it.
Cunningham's imaginatively interwoven three-level plot, founded on Virginia Woolf's masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway, resonates with the complex sensibilities of Woolf herself-her homoerotic desire, her depression, her madness and her genius. Taking a daring plunge below the surface of things in much the same way that Woolf's character, in the opening scene, enters the water with rocks in the pockets of her coat, the novel explores the burden of "suppressed desire", the difficulty of living a split life. As Adrienne Rich states in Lies, Secrets, and Silence, this is "an extremely painful and dangerous way to live"; that is, to be "split between a publicly acceptable persona, and a part of yourself that you perceive as the essential, the creative and powerful self, yet also as possibly unacceptable, perhaps even monstrous." The consequences of this split, moreover, often result in madness, depression, and loneliness, the psychological conditions that plague the characters in the novel. But in the end, Cunningham draws not only a compassionate picture of the vicissitudes of all kinds of love and passion but also offers a triumphant resolution that embraces and enlarges its expression.
Transitions between the three subplots are artfully rendered by the oblique but insistent connections between stories-different scenes, different characters, but the problems and solutions of each move in an ongoing spiral of variations on shared themes. The book opens with Virginia Woolf writing the first sentence of Mrs. Dalloway, then shifts to the character of housewife Laura Brown reading the first page of the novel in Los Angeles in 1949, and finally moves to our present and that of Clarissa Vaughn, nicknamed "Mrs. Dalloway" by her gay friend Richard, a writer who is dying of AIDS. Clarissa, like Woolf's character Mrs. Dalloway, is planning a celebratory dinner party for her complicated and emotionally tormented friend-vexations that drive him equally to moments of passionate love and rage. Cunningham's plots intersect in subtle and intricate ways, echoing Woolf's own artistic methodology as stated in the novel's epigraph: "I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment." And in the end, those "caves" behind the characters do connect-in ways, moreover, that are startling and revelatory.
Love in this novel is a weighty consideration, as it is always placed contiguously with death, a position that lends itself to the more philosophical considerations of a chthonic love, a "soul love", one that embraces all of the subterranean complexities and expressions of that most enigmatic of human emotions. Clarissa's inner struggle with her feelings for Richard, and all that she rejected over thirty years ago, is representative of the struggle with our own illusions that conflict with the more sensible considerations of living with ground beneath our feet. So Clarissa sensibly opts to accept the beauty of the ordinariness of life, of her life with lover, Sally, and "not to imagine that other future, that rejected future as a vast and endearing romance laid over friendship so searing and profound it could accompany them to the grave and possibly beyond. She could, she thinks, have entered another world. She could have had a life as potent and dangerous as literature itself." Now, facing the stark reality of Richard's spiritual death as he nears the end of his physical life-he smells, he's cynical, unhappy, unfulfilled, and professing his love for her even though he's gay, she's lesbian-Clarissa knows that her decision was right, that it would have been impossible to live with Richard's passion nor could it have been sustained from day to day. It is, in fact, clear that loving Richard can only be, as it was for others who tried, a "long doomed project" and so she was wise to abandon it "in favor of simpler pleasures." Although she attempts to convince him of the value of what's left of his life, he cannot endure it, saying: "but there are still the hours, aren't there? One and then another." For Richard, there is simply too much time to live with the burden of his pain, his regrets, and his disease, so he chooses, like Virginia Woolf, to end his life.
Meanwhile, Laura Brown contemplates suicide because she's unfulfilled as a 50's wife and mother. Her own suppressed desire leads her toward thoughts of Virginia Woolf as "virginal, unbalanced, defeated by the impossible demands of life and art," and "she is glad to know that it is possible to stop living. There is comfort in facing the full range of options; in considering all your choices, fearlessly and without guile." But the startling ending of Laura's story will peel the scales from readers' eyes when they find out what options she takes.
The three stories are connected by the image of a single kiss, its power to open up a vision of the future and fill it with hope. Cunningham brilliantly defines it through Clarissa's words, as "one's greatest point of optimism converging in one kiss an intense yearning for all that is possible in love." When Virginia kisses Vanessa, she describes it as "full of a love complex and ravenous, ancient," as the "kiss that would sustain her." Clarissa remembers Richard's kiss as "singular perfection, in part because it seemed, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other." And when Laura kisses her friend Kitty, she knows she can continue to remember the moment, that even when loving her husband, she can "still dream of kissing Kitty again someday, in a kitchen or at the beach as children shriek in the surf, aroused, hopeless, in love with their own recklessness if not with each other."
So, in the end, Clarissa's party for Richard goes on-but with a much wider sense of celebration: the affirmation of the meaning and beauty of life itself. She articulates her coming to terms with the new purpose of the party: "It is in fact, a party, after all. It is a party for the not-yet-dead; for the relatively undamaged; for those who for mysterious reasons have the fortune to be alive." The deeply wise humanity of Cunningham's writing is humbling as he gently breaks our illusions of the ideals of romantic love and guides us back to living and loving in the now, in the ordinary, described in this exhilaratingly beautiful, optimistic passage:

"We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep-it's as simple and ordinary as that.There's just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city in the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more."

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