Specimen Days

by Michael Cunningham
308 pages,
ISBN: 000200559X

Post Your Opinion
Pulpy Fiction a la Whitman
by Michael Harris

Exactly one century after Walt Whitman first published Leaves of Grass, a then-unknown poet named Allen Ginsberg released a ditty of his own entitled "A Supermarket in California", wherein Ginsberg calls out "I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys." That same year, Lawrence Ferlinghetti caught wind of another Ginsberg poem, "Howl", and wired immediately: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?" A star was born.
Now, exactly fifty years since "Howl", the spectre of Mr. Whitman is raised once more, this time by a writer very well known indeed. Michael Cunningham's new triad of novellas, Specimen Days, follows in the homage-heavy footsteps of The Hours, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, by modelling itself after the "good gray poet" himself, and by lacing its pages with text lifted directly from Leaves of Grass. Ginsberg was taken with Whitman as a fellow revolutionary-both were enamoured with the idea of building something heartbreaking and new. When Cunningham calls up Whitman, however, it makes markedly less sense.
Virginia Woolf, re-inventor of the novel, was a revolutionary who fit admirably with Cunningham's own prose in The Hours. But Whitman, the grandfather of American poetry, proves an ungainly role model in Specimen Days.
Whitman makes a cameo (just in case we weren't paying attention) in each of the three, interconnected novellas that make up Cunningham's book. The bard presides over this trio of stories like an overzealous schoolteacher, hammering home something suspiciously close to a moral. We learn, by turns, that no one really dies; that no one can be trusted; and that we are all "one" anyway, so what's the fuss?
The problem with morals (other than their being boring and simple) is that Leaves of Grass is specifically an amoral work. Whitman's paean to America could be read a hundred different ways-and Cunningham knows it-but nothing so chaste as a moral survives the poetry's tumble. Yet these stories, each separated by a century and united by the backdrop of an eerily consistent New York City, attempt to wrestle a life-lesson out of Whitman's poetry. The saving grace is that each story fails in achieving its own moral goals. They self-destruct, in a way, because Cunningham binds them in such claustrophobic genres-ghost story, thriller and sci-fi fantasy.
"In the Machine" is the ghost story (with no ghost) set in Whitman World-19th century New York. Lucas is our hero, a deformed boy who reads Leaves of Grass under the covers as fervently as other boys study nudie mags. He memorizes stanza after stanza and finds, much to his embarrassment, that Whitman's words spill out of him, unprompted and out of place, during banal moments in conversation-aggrandizing his tiny life with Whitman's high-flung declamations. His older brother is the ghost in question; a machine pulled Simon into its inexorable, grinding gears just before the story begins. Cunningham's writing, his gorgeous prose, similarly appears to have been caught up and half-devoured by the gears of the ghost story genre.
"The Children's Crusade", a present-day pulp fiction thriller (with no bad guy), riffs on the dynamics of "In the Machine" by leaving in the deformed child but allowing a grown woman-a hard-nosed criminal psychologist named Cat-to tell the story this time.
Finally, "Like Beauty", rounds off the list of "low" genres with a sci-fi fantasy (which, surprise, it isn't really). And this time an older man, who hasn't yet had a turn at the helm, gets to steer the narrative. The name of the ghost brother from "In the Machine"-Simon-is adopted by the protagonist in this futuristic tale and, as symmetry would have it, Simon (eaten by a machine in the earlier story) now really is a machine-a high-tech robot who just wants to figure out his feelings. And so we come full circle. Or do we?
The through-lines and counterpoints in Specimen Days are clunky at best. A boy, a man and a woman are present in each. A mysterious white bowl makes a requisite appearance. And there is in each a dose of Walt Whitman (or his transformed equivalent) who, with a wink and an obtuse maxim ("Go where your heard bids you"), feigns to calm the world's trouble.
But the most interesting connective tissue in Specimen Days is the ever-present framework of "low" art-ghost stories, thrillers, fantasies. Whitman's poetry was read as unrefined in his day, and Cunningham latches on to that populist approach, seeks to root out the universal impulses behind those stock tales, the stories we repeat to each other ad nauseam. We don't read pulp for its literary merits. So why do we?
A suicide bomber calls the cops in "The Children's Crusade" to tell them, "I'm nobody. I'm already dead." Two thoughts go through the reader's head. First: I'm stuck in a facile summer blockbuster. Second: I sort of like being stuck here. Cunningham is aware of the restrictions (in this case, of a thriller) and is revelling in the rules of the adopted genre. Later, in the same novella, Cunningham's brassy criminal psychologist interviews a Whitman scholar (one of the book's more transparent moments). "[Whitman] understood life to be transitory," says the professor. Just so, each novella, like a set formula reacting to changeable input, spins out a specialized response to Leaves of Grass, according to the dictates of its genre.
Whitman, by his own admission, contains multitudes. His message is plural, sprawling. Likewise, Specimen Days refuses to be pinned down as a whole. Yet each story, in its genre-strapped way, cannot escape its own moral, its own rules. A ghost story, for example, requires, by definition, a creepy tone. "In the Machine", eager to creep, sets out this way: "Walt said that the dead turned into grass, but there was no grass where they'd buried Simon."
Cunningham respects the tones of genre; he even relies on them. Yet he strives, like Whitman, to transcend. Whitman's aim was Miltonian in scope. Cunningham, being slightly less ambitious, does not seek to paint a portrait of an immortal America. Rather, he satisfies himself with a quieter question: how do such portraits endure? Whitman shocked his readers by writing in the vulgar style of the day; it was a "vulgarity" that immortalized his work. For Cunningham, the vulgar equivalent is the pulp genre.
Whitman spoke of a powerful play that goes on, and to which we could "contribute a verse." It may be that stock narrative forms, stories we retell ourselves, function as a sort of immortal story; like fairy tales, they tend to signify some primal truth. But Specimen Days does not solve the question its form poses. It whimpers when Whitman would roar (and when Ginsberg would howl).
By the end of "Like Beauty", Whitman's chutzpah has either ascended to such ethereal heights as to become unintelligible or has been boiled off entirely. Left behind, in the melancholic tail end of Specimen Days, is a trace of concentrated Cunningham: a lover watches his beloved dying and imagines her past, her life before him:

"Here was an afternoon of no particular consequence, when Catareen stood in the doorway of her hut, looking at her village...here was her sense of herself in the middle of a life that was hers and no one else's. Here was the bittersweet savor of it, the piercing somethingness of it-the pure sensation of being Catareen Callatura, at that moment, on an afternoon of no consequence, just before the rain."

Not surprisingly, Cunningham at his best sounds an awful lot like Woolf.
Leaves of Grass did not enjoy overwhelming critical acclaim when Walt Whitman published his first edition in 1855. Specimen Days, the latest offering from one of New York's most talented novelists, will foster similar confusion from critics. But Cunningham is asking for it.

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