New Fiction

Finds and flops
More

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.

Joseph O'Neill is working on his third novel, The Brooklyn Dream Game.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?

In a series of candid video interviews, women talk about self-image, self-judgement, and what it means to love their bodies


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In