Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2006 | Reviews

Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham

By Angie Toomsen

A historical ghost story, a contemporary "crime noir" thriller, and a futuristic sci-fi romance may seem peculiar bedfellows, yet these disparate genres effortlessly mingle among the pages of Michael Cunningham's latest novel, Specimen Days.

The Pulitzer- and PEN/Faulkner-winning author of The Hours threads three separate novellas into a poetic whole, telling an overarching tale of compassion and sacrifice amid social deterioration. Like The Hours, which orbits around literary legend Virginia Woolf, Specimen Days finds its muse in poet Walt Whitman. Specimen Days is no formulaic rehash, though. Instead, Cunningham ventures into even more thematically inventive territory.

Each section is set in New York City. "In the Machine" hauntingly confronts the brutal gloom of America's Industrial Age. "The Children's Crusade," a thriller-esque crime novel set in present day, touches on issues of race, class, and child terrorism. The final episode, "Like Beauty," jumps 150 years into the future to find New York a corrupt, apocalyptic amusement park where even aliens and robots hunger for renewed humanity. While episodes of grief and stifled dreams underscore Specimen Days, each story concludes with an act of profound kindness.

Excerpts from Whitman's Leaves of Grass pop up in unexpected places, from the war cry of a child bomber to the programmed output of an artificial human being. Besides Whitman's verse, Cunningham links his narrative with recurring character names, places, and objects. At times, such unifying conventions feel forced. Also, the final, futuristic plot is distractingly similar to Steven Spielberg's sci-fi flick, A.I. It's as though the author's box office success with The Hours makes him prematurely preen his stories for the big screen.

Such minor flaws fail to overshadow Cunningham's graceful storytelling and his inspired infusion of Whitman's spirit throughout all three stories. Though Whitman does not appear as a character in the book, as Virginia Woolf graced the pages of The Hours, he is an appropriate omnipresent ghost. After all, he envisioned an American utopia possessing a spiritual connectedness that could overleap race, class, era, literary genre, and even death itself: "And what I assume you shall assume/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."