First published in: 2005
This edition: Harper Perennial, 2006
Genre: connected novellas; ghost story / detective, thriller / science-fiction
Cover photos: Christopher Pilitz / Networked images (horse); Alfred Gescheidt / Getty Images (fifth avenue).
Time is scary. The abundance of it, the lack of it. Living in it. With time comes change, uncertainty, the unknown. Just when you get through one moment in time, the next is waiting for you, challenging you. Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days evokes this awareness. The knowledge that we're spinning out of control.
This book's a tough one to review, because it's a complex book to read. It's quite a critical piece in itself.
Specimen Days chronicles the lives of three people: a women, a young man, and a boy. Three people. Three different times. Three different stories. (But they're the same people. They go through scary times. Their stories are in ways the same.)
In the Machine
The first story, "In the Machine" (told from the boy's perspective), is a ghost story set in the mid- to late nineteenth century; a disfigured boy (Lucas) recently begun work at the factory, taking the place of his brother Simon, who was crushed to death by a machine in the factory. Lucas is convinced Simon's a ghost who'll use the machines to kill many more people, including Simon's girlfriend, Catherine (the young woman).
"In the Machine" is beautifully written, atmospheric and realistic. It's almost as though Cunningham went back in time. He understands this period. He knows how to write it. SPECIMEN DAYS is hard to get into; it starts with the least interesting story out of the three. But that is perhaps because "In the Machine" takes place in a time period which already happened, years ago. It's history in a way, whereas the other stories head into unknown territory.
The boy's fears and even his paranoia are understandable; I'm sure a lot of people back then were afraid of the changes, could perhaps foresee problems. "In the Machine" is ominous – all three stories are ominous. The second story, "The Children's Crusade", in fact is downright eerie.
The Children's Crusade
With the age of industry comes machinery. Robots taking over for human beings. Replacing us for the sake of entertainment. Perhaps one day taking over entirely. (Can you tell I've been watching Battlestar Galactica?)
Just imagine a time in between the beginning of industrialism and the undoubtedly robotized future. Imagine a Present, where a movement followed by the innocent (children) wants nothing more but to start over. To turn back before we move even further forward into what could very well be our demise?
"The Children's Crusade", told from the young woman's point of view, is definitely the scariest story. I experienced it as a dark version of Oliver Twist, where children are being used to kill and destruct, used as a means to a so-called better end. A new beginning. Back to appreciating what has been given to us. What is so good about a world where there's murder, drug abuse and more?
This story is downright brilliant and spot on. There's that chilling dichotomy of children – who are the embodiment of innocence – being the terrorists. Children being used as weapons – exploding as they hug people. Murder and violence, hypocritically, being used to bring about something more… peaceful. The classic "we're right, you're wrong" attitude that brings about a lot of violence in the world.
It's a detective story, but wholly unique because the perpetrator is unexpected and perhaps partially sympathetic. The protagonist in this one, Cat, is struggling: on the one hand she's looking at the law and recognizes the danger, on the other hand she feels a maternal need to protect one of the children involved. The atmosphere is amazing, very noir – I could visualize this story, see it with my own eyes.
Cunningham writes so vividly, the brain can't help but to translate his words into the images he intended for you to see. A scary world, whether it's the world 150 years ago, the world of today. The world, 150 years from now, an interpretation of which is described by Cunningham in the third story of SPECIMEN DAYS.
The third novella, "Like Beauty" is a post-apocalyptic story set in New York, years from today. Simon's workday usually consists of beating up or robbing clients in Old (!) New York's Central Park – it's the authentic New York experience. Except there's nothing very real about Simon: he's an android ("simulo") – a ghost in the machine, as the Lucas of the first story feared would happen. Wanting nothing more than to be more real, he flees the city, joined by a teen prophet and nanny. Catareen's not your stereotypical Swedish au pair: she's a lizard-like alien. Together, they embark on a journey to something, hopefully, better.
Christianity's strong re-uprising in "Like Beauty" is almost ironic; we'd have arrived in a world where everything is undoubtedly created and controlled by man, and that's when humanity needs to feel, more than anything, that a greater power is in control over us. Because what else is left if there's no belief? A robotized theme park world. Talk about dystopian.
"Like Beauty" paints a bleak picture, yet I found "Like Beauty" to be the most beautiful story, because it is a story of individual will power and hope in the face of utter desolation.
The story is highly imaginative, and at times a bit much, but who's to say that we're not heading into an insane world like this one? Anything can happen from here on out. Development, invention – it could go any which way. Cunningham's vision is one man's interpretation, but it is a strong enough interpretation to make anyone (everyone who reads it) stop and think, not just about the future but also about the present. It also changes, in some ways, how we look at the past.
Cunningham is what we in Holland would call a centipede: a person who's capable, successfully, of doing many things. He's one of my favorite authors for a reason: he never ceases to surprise me. His ambition is admirable. In SPECIMEN days, he juggles three different genres, yet manages to subtly create a whole, by using careful motifs (such as a white bowl) and connections. Three different stories, yet they are obviously, together, one book.
But even looking at each story individually: Cunningham does historical fiction. He does noir detective. He does science fiction. He does them all well.
In THE HOURS, which you may have guessed is one of my very favorite books, Cunningham also writes three different stories set in three different eras – and was clearly inspired by Virginia Woolf (one of the stories is about Woolf, the other is about a woman reading Woolf, another is about a present-time Mrs. Dalloway). It worked, because it was obviously a respectful homage but a very unique and soulful work, too.
In SPECIMEN DAYS, Cunningham takes inspiration from poet Walt Whitman: his poetry lines are quoted throughout the book. Lucas "speaks" in Walt Whitman frequently. The children terrorists quote him. Simulo Simon's got Whitman quotes installed in his system.
It could be seen as Cunningham "repeating his success story (THE HOURS)", but trust me, it's really not like that. There is so much to think about regarding this book. Whitman in SPECIMEN DAYS is more like a light in the midst of a lot of bleakness, where individuals, despite loss and desolation, still triumph.
(That's how I interpreted it, anyway.)