Like its predecessor, the Pulitzer Prize—winning The Hours, Michael Cunningham's fifth novel consists of three stories set in three different epochs. Also like The Hours, which reworked Virginia Woolf, this narrative triplex is built on a bookish foundation: the poetry and ontology of Walt Whitman. The poet appears in person in the first story, a supernatural tale about a malformed, Whitman-reciting thirteen-year-old and his family, whose members are all horribly transmogrified, physically and spiritually, by the grotesque nature of factory work. The second is a detective story of post-9/11 New York, in which a woman police officer hunts down children who have smoked too much Leaves of Grass, as it were, and turned into suicide bombers. The third, set in a "postmeltdown" America of the future, tells of a humanoid's escape, in the company of an extraterrestrial, from sinister "Old New York"—a humanoid who, for thematic reasons, is given to involuntary fits of quoting Whitman.
This clanking trope points up a problem with the book. However vertiginous Cunningham's preoccupations may be—they include the essential oneness of astral and animal and man-made beings (Whitman: "Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you"); the mysteries of reincarnation or re-embodiment (characters, names, and identities drift loosely from one tale to another); the frightening automation of humanity—they are grounded in a book that is marred by the mechanization it decries. The plots often seem made, not begotten; each, finally, is reduced to melodrama.
Michael Cunningham is one of the most humane and moving writers we have; but the toiling quality of Specimen Days suggests that (unlike, say, David Mitchell) he may lack the naturally impassioned formalism required to make a multi-genre novel come truly to life.