Specimen Daysby Michael Cunningham
In each section of Michael Cunningham's bold new novel, his first since The Hours, we encounter the same group of characters: a young boy, a man, and a woman. "In the Machine" is a ghost story that takes place at the height of the industrial revolution as human beings confront the alienating realities of the new machine age. "The Children's Crusade," set/i>
In each section of Michael Cunningham's bold new novel, his first since The Hours, we encounter the same group of characters: a young boy, a man, and a woman. "In the Machine" is a ghost story that takes place at the height of the industrial revolution as human beings confront the alienating realities of the new machine age. "The Children's Crusade," set in the early twenty-first century, plays with the conventions of the noir thriller as it tracks the pursuit of a terrorist band that is detonating bombs, seemingly at random, around the city. The third part, "Like Beauty," evokes a New York 150 years into the future, when the city is all but overwhelmed by refugees from the first inhabited planet to be contacted by the people of Earth.
Presiding over each episode of this interrelated whole is the prophetic figure of the poet Walt Whitman, who promised his future readers, "It avails not, neither time or place . . . I am with you, and know how it is." Specimen Days is a genre-bending, haunting, and transformative ode to life in our greatest city, and a meditation on the direction and meaning of America's destiny. It is a work of surpassing power and beauty by one of the most original and daring writers at work today.
“Another dazzling tour de force.” Library Journal (starred review)
“[Walt Whitman's] boundless spirit . . . imbues Specimen Days with a sense of wonder and magic.” Elissa Schappel, Vanity Fair
“A smashing literary tour de force and an utterly invigorating reading experience. If this book does not make you jump up from the sofa, looking at life and literature in new ways, check to see if you have a pulse.” USA Today on The Hours
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Walt said that the dead turned into grass, but there was no grass where they'd buried Simon. He was with the other Irish on the far side of the river, where it was only dirt and gravel and names on stones.
Catherine believed Simon had gone to heaven. She had a locket with his picture and a bit of his hair inside.
"Heaven's the place for him," she said. "He was too good for this world." She looked uncertainly out the parlor window and into the street, as if she expected a glittering carriage to wheel along with Simon on board, serene in his heedless milk-white beauty, waving and grinning, going gladly to the place where he had always belonged.
"If you think so," Lucas answered. Catherine fingered the locket. Her hands were tapered and precise. She could sew stitches too fine to see.
"And yet he's with us still," she said. "Don't you feel it?" She worried the locket chain as if it were a rosary.
"I suppose so," Lucas said. Catherine thought Simon was in the locket, and in heaven, and with them still. Lucas hoped she didn't expect him to be happy about having so many Simons to contend with.
The guests had departed, and Lucas's father and mother had gone to bed. It was only Lucas and Catherine in the parlor, with what had been left behind. Empty plates, the rind of a ham. The ham had been meant for Catherine's and Simon's wedding. It was lucky, then, to have it for the wake instead.
Lucas said, "I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end. But I do not talk of the beginning or the end."
He hadn't meant to speak as the book. He never did, but when he was excited he couldn't help himself.
She said, "Oh, Lucas."
His heart fluttered and thumped against the bone.
"I worry for you," she said. "You're so young."
"I'm almost thirteen," he said.
"It's a terrible place. It's such hard work."
"I'm lucky. It's a kindness of them, to give me Simon's job."
"And no more school."
"I don't need school. I have Walt's book."
"You know the whole thing, don't you?"
"Oh no. There's much more, it will take me years."
"You must be careful at the works," she said. "You must" She stopped speaking, though her face didn't change. She continued offering her profile, which was as gravely beautiful as that of a woman on a coin. She continued looking out at the street below, waiting for the heavenly entourage to parade by with Simon up top, the pride of the family, a new prince of the dead.
Lucas said, "You must be careful, too."
"There's nothing for me to be careful about, my dear. For me it's just tomorrow and the next day."
She slipped the locket chain back over her head. The locket vanished into her dress. Lucas wanted to tell herwhat? He wanted to tell her that he was inspired and vigilant and recklessly alone, that his body contained his unsteady heart and something else, something he felt but could not describe: porous and spiky, shifting with flecks of thought, with urge and memory; salted with brightness, flickerings of white and green and pale gold, like stars; something that loved stars because it was made of the same substance. He needed to tell her it was impossible, it was unbearable, to be so continually mistaken for a misshapen boy with a walleye and a pumpkin head and a habit of speaking in fits.
He said, "I celebrate myself, and what I assume you shall assume." It was not what he'd hoped to tell her.
She smiled. At least she wasn't angry with him. She said, "I should go now. Will you walk me home?"
"Yes," he said. "Yes."
Outside, on the street, Catherine slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow. He tried to steady himself, to stride manfully, though what he wanted most was to stop striding altogether, to rise up like smoke and float above the street, which was filled with its evening people, workingmen returning, newsboys hawking their papers. Mad Mr. Cain paced on his corner, dressed in his dust-colored coat, snatching distractedly at whatever crawled in his beard, shouting, "Mischief, gone and forgotten, what have ye done with the shattered hearts?" The street was full of its smell, dung and kerosene, acrid smokesomething somewhere was always burning. If Lucas could rise out of his body, he would become what he saw and heard and smelled. He would gather around Catherine as the air did, touch her everywhere. He would be drawn into her when she breathed.
He said, "The smallest sprout shows there is really no death."
"Just as you say, my dear," Catherine said.
A newsboy shouted, "Woman brutally murdered, read all about it!" Lucas thought he could be a newsboy, but the pay was too low, and he couldn't be trusted to call the news, could he? He might lose track of himself and walk the streets shouting, "Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." He'd do better at the works. If the impulse overcame him, he could shout into Simon's machine. The machine wouldn't know or care, any more than Simon had.
Catherine didn't speak as they walked. Lucas forced himself to remain silent as well. Her building was three blocks to the north, on Fifth Street. He walked her up onto the stoop, and they stood there a moment together, before the battered door.
Catherine said, "Here we are."
A cart rolled by with a golden landscape painted on its side: two cows grazing among stunted trees and a third cow looking up at the name of a dairy, which floated in the golden sky. Was it meant to be heaven? Would Simon want to be there? If Simon went to heaven and it proved to be a field filled with reverent cows, which Simon would he be when he got there? Would he be the whole one, or the crushed?
A silence gathered between Lucas and Catherine, different from the quiet in which they'd walked. It was time, Lucas thought, to say something, and not as the book. He said, "Will you be all right?"
She laughed, a low murmuring laugh he felt in the hairs on his forearms. "It is I who should ask you that question. Will you be all right?"
"Yes, yes, I'll be fine."
She glanced at a place just above Lucas's head and settled herself, a small shifting within her dark dress. It seemed for a moment as if her dress, with its high collar, its whisper of hidden silk, had a separate life. It seemed as if Catherine, having briefly considered rising up out of her dress, had decided instead to remain, to give herself back to her clothes.
She said, "Had it happened a week later, I'd be a widow, wouldn't I? I'm nothing now."
"No, no. You are wonderful, you are beautiful."
She laughed again. He looked down at the stoop, noticed that it contained specks of brightness. Mica? He went briefly into the stone. He was cold and sparkling, immutable, glad to be walked on.
"I'm an old woman," she said.
He hesitated. Catherine was well past twenty-five. It had been talked about when the marriage was announced, for Simon had been barely twenty. But she was not old in the way she meant. She was not soured or evacuated, she was not dimmed.
He said, "You are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded."
She put her fingertips to his cheek. "Sweet boy," she said.
He said, "Will I see you again?"
"Of course you will. I shall be right here."
"But it will not be the same."
"No. It will not be quite the same, I'm afraid."
"If only . . ."
She waited to hear what he would say. He waited, too. If only the machine hadn't taken Simon. If only he, Lucas, were older and healthier, with a sounder heart. If only he could marry Catherine himself. If only he could leave his body and become the dress she wore.
A silence passed, and she kissed him. She put her lips on his.
When she withdrew he said, "The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless, it is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it."
She said, "You must go home and sleep now."
It was time to leave her. There was nothing more to do or say. Still, he lingered. He felt as he sometimes did in dreams, that he was on a stage before an audience, expected to sing or recite.
She turned, took her key from her reticule, put it in the lock. "Good night," she said.
He stepped down. From the sidewalk he said to her retreating form, "I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise."
"Good night," she said again. And she was gone.
He didn't go home, though home was the rightful place for him. He went instead to Broadway, where the living walked.
Broadway was itself, always itself, a river of light and life that flowed through the shades and little fires of the city. Lucas felt, as he always did when he walked there, a queasy, subvert exaltation, as if he were a spy sent to another country, a realm of riches. He walked with elaborate nonchalance, hoping to be as invisible to others as they were visible to him.
On the sidewalk around him, the last of the shoppers were relinquishing the street to the first of the revelers. Ladies in dresses the color of pigeons' breasts, the color of rain, swished along bearing parcels, speaking softly to one another from under their feathered hats. Men in topcoats strode confidently, spreading the bleak perfume of their cigars, flashing their teeth, slapping the stone with their licorice boots. Carriages rolled by bearing their mistresses home, and the newsboys called out, "Woman murdered in Five Points, read all about it!" Red curtains billowed in the windows of the hotels, under a sky going a deeper red with the night. Somewhere someone played "Lilith" on a calliope, though it seemed that the street itself emanated music, as if by walking with such certainty, such satisfaction, the people summoned music out of the pavement.
If Simon was in heaven, it might be this. Lucas could imagine the souls of the departed walking eternally, with music rising from the cobblestones and curtains putting out their light. But would this be a heaven for Simon? His brother was (had been) loud and rampant, glad of his songs and his meals. What else had made him happy? He hadn't cared for curtains or dresses. He hadn't cared about Walt or the book. What had he wanted that this heaven could provide?
Broadway would be Lucas's heaven, Broadway and Catherine and the book. In his heaven he would be everything he saw and heard. He would be himself and Catherine; he would be the calliope and the lamps; he would be shoes striking pavement, and he would be the pavement under the shoes. He would ride with Catherine on the toy horse from Niedermeyer's window, which would be the size of an actual horse but perfect in the way of toys, moving serenely over the cobblestones on its bright red wheels.
He said, "I am large, I contain multitudes." A man in a topcoat, passing by, glanced at him strangely, as people did. The man would be among the angels in Lucas's heaven, just as plump and prosperous as he was on earth, but in the next world he would not consider Lucas strange. In heaven, Lucas would be beautiful. He'd speak a language everyone understood.
Copyright © 2005 by Mare Vaporum Corp
Meet the Author
Michael Cunningham is the author of the bestselling novel The Hours, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award and was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film, A Home at the End of the World, also adapted for the screen, and Flesh and Blood, all published by FSG. He lives in New York.
- New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- November 6, 1952
- Place of Birth:
- Cincinnati, Ohio
- B.A., Stanford University, 1975; M.F.A., University of Iowa, 1980
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Specimen days is three tales connected by a group of characters: a young boy, a man and a woman; and Walt Whitman-the poet and his poetry. They all occur in New York City. In the first story, "in the Machine"-takes place in the height of the industrial revolution, as human beings confront the alienating realities of the new machine age. The story opens with the Simon's death, who suffered a terrible accident at work and was killed by the machine he worked with. His younger brother Lucas, or Luke, drops out from school to take the vacant position so that he can support his family. He loved Walt Whitman and had borrowed one of his books from the Library. One day Lucas meets the poet, who tells him to walk north. He ends in Central park and sees the stars for the first time. Simon was going to marry Catherine Fitzhugh, who was a seamstress at a factory and is carrying Simon's baby. Luke learns and master's the work that Simon used to do, but he is infatuated with Catherine and keeps trying to stay in touch with her. Luke learns to listen to the machines and has a premonition that Catherine is in danger. He buys her a bowl as a present to try to keep her from going to work. When that does not work, he incurs in an accident with the machine that killed his brother and Catherine stays with him in the hospital, thus saving her from a fire that would have killed her had she been the factory where she worked. The second story: "The Children's Crusade" is set in the early twenty first century. It tracks the pursuit of a terrorist band that is detonating bombs, seemingly at random around New York City. Cat Martin, who had lost a son by the name of Luke, is a 911 operator and takes a call that should have been investigated. A young child quotes Wait Whitman verses as he tells her he is going to kill someone. Three days later Dick Hart, a prominent real estate magnate in New York is killed by a white child with a pipe bomb. The child runs to the victim, embraces him and detonates the bomb. A second call comes to her. Again a child quotes Walt Whitman poetry and speaks similarly to the first one-he belongs to the family, they have no names and quote Whitman: "Nobody really dies. We go to the grass. We go to the trees." Cat goes home-she lives near the factory of women that burnt last century (1st story) and in front of her door, someone writes: "To die is different from what anyone supposes, and luckier." Again from Whitman. She goes to her boyfriend's house-Simon Dryden-and next day a 22y/o black man by the name of Henry Cobbs is killed by a white child with a pipe bomb. Next day, Cat takes the day off and she walks on Broadway where she sees a bowl at Gaya's Emporium and she buys it (1st story). Next call is from a woman who tells Cat that "the end of days are coming." They have cells of children in many towns. She calls it The children's crusade. This woman tells cat to find a third boy. When Cat goes there with Pete, her cop buddy, they find a house that was wallpapered with Walt Whitman's poetry everywhere. She realizes is where the boys grew up and where they were indoctrinated and taught to kill. Finally Cat meets the third boy. She talks him into getting rid of the bomb, she feeds, clothes and decides that rather than turning him in, she will raise him as the lost child (Luke) she no longer has. So she names this kid Luke and they escape New York. Unfortunately another si
A very interesting read from start to finish. I am still not entirely sure what the overall object of the book is, but I did really enjoy the adventure. The book is broken up into three seperate stories which all have ties which bind them together. However, the ties are not at all expected or even fully understood until the end. I really enjoyed that each story was set in a different time period. As a result the book satisfied my like of historical fiction, semi modern persepectives & future sci-fi adventures all in one. The dips, turns and twists were not all expected, and did not remain constant or even slightly predictable with each story. It was easier to fall in love with the first set of characters and not so much with the last group to take the stage. I would recommend this for anyone looking for a good read which is definitely out of the ordinary.
In writing Specimen Days Michael Cunningham has produced a great work of fiction on multiple levels. On the surface Cunningham provides an entertaining storyline, uniquely supported and intriguing in its originality. However, on a deeper level the novel contains a thought-provoking theme, which continues through all three stories and furnishes commentary on the ideas of Walt Whitman, while the masterful manipulation of setting enhances every aspect of Cunningham¿s ideas. Cunningham initially utilizes the setting of the industrial revolution to introduce the topic upon which he focuses the entire novel: the poetry of Walt Whitman¿s Leaves of Grass. This is extremely effective because he is able to recreate the environment about which Whitman originally wrote. The poetry provides a strong foundation of ideas that Cunningham returns to throughout the novel, and through his manipulation of the setting, he shows the enduring nature Whitman¿s ideas. Cunningham¿s manipulation of the setting occurs not in place, but in time, jumping from the 19th century to just after the present to the distant future. Throughout these three times the location remains Manhattan, and further unification achieved by using the poetry of Whitman, which ties the time periods together with a single theme. The theme is a set of ideas presented in Leaves of Grass, which concentrate mainly on machinery and technology and encourage a return to basic ideals while lauding the marvels of nature. The novel accomplishes its tasks flawlessly, drawing the reader in with strong characters, then reintroducing the characters in each story so as not to lose any rapport the reader may have formed and to further unify the separate books. Through the passage of time Cunningham deeply and movingly investigates the constancy of the topics highlighted by Whitman¿s poetry, skillfully drawing all the ideas together through manipulation of the setting.
This book was, to me, both enjoyable and one of the most disappointing of 2005. Seven years after Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize winning The Hours, he has written a book that is good but does not live up to the his high standard. While I consider The Hours to be perhaps the most brilliant books of its decade this book seems to follow more along the lines of a novelistic 'jam session.' The book, with its three novellas seems less acute then Cunningham's previous novels, giving it a sprawling feel common to real life but not necessarily good fiction. While Cunningham does retain his uniquely vivid and lyrical style, immersing oneself in his beautiful, poetic style isn't enough to save his sometimes scattered, often shaky plotline. The book starts of with a quite interesting novella about the industrial revolution in 19th Century New York but with each passing story they get less and less impressive. While I congratulate Mr. Cunningham for trying not to be a one trick horse with his ambitious jaunt into the realm of science fiction, it is easy to see that science fiction is not his forte. The third novella works less and less until I get to the ending that inspires the question 'I read all the way for this?' While some of the previous reviewers might think I am being a little harsh, it is only because I have great faith in Cunningham's powers. Any reader, who picked up this book, never having read Cunningham before, would likely have the reaction that he is a good but not memorable author, while he is so much more than that. But for us seasoned, and perhaps jaded, reviewers it raises the question whether we would have invariably felt disappointed no matter what his book had been. I think this is, for Cunningham, somewhat of a second novel syndrome. While, of course this is his fifth novel, I think perhaps after the great success of The Hours he is suffering from the notion that no matter what he does his fans will not like. All in all Specimen Days is exactly as stated above, a good but not great book that will undoubtedly not withstand the test of time.
Michael Cunningham possesses a mind rich in imagination, musical in nature, poetic in style, and mesmerizingly addictive in product. SPECIMEN DAYS should not be compared with any other work either by Cunningham or other authors writing in one of the three genres this book embraces. It is one of a kind and appreciating and celebrating that unique stance is the secret of finding its core significance.SPECIMEN DAYS takes place over a span of approximately three hundred years and in doing so it avoids chronology that would make it 'historical fiction', linear writing that would suggest a magnum opus novel, and fabrication of language or place that would imitate science fiction. The stories are three in number, individually named, able to stand solely on their own: this could be three novellas in collection. But Cunningham challenges us to find the threads of similarity, the permutations of seeds planted in the first pages that stretch and grow through the entire book, and he does this with the glue of the poetry and presence of Walt Whitman whose words 'It avails not, neither time or place...I am with you, and know how it is' are graciously quoted on the cover flap.The constants are in the characters' names of Catherine (or Cat or Catareen), Lucas (or Luke), Simon the fragments of Whitman's poetry from 'Leaves of Grass' which emanate from the lips of a lad or a child or a programmed humanoid a small decorated bowl that surfaces almost like a spirit in each story. How Cunningham weaves these simple aspects into three wildly different tales form different times is not only amazingly fine but also stimulating to the reader's eyes and spirit.A story about the downtrodden poor of the industrial revolution in New York City and how love can encourage unimaginable sacrifices progresses to post-9/11 Manhattan where like named characters respond to the humanism of the sacrifices of terrorism which in turn progresses into a completely imagined future when man's greed and drive to conquer space, has superceded caring for earth's mankind and resulted in intergalactic travel mixing the populations of two planets in the remains of a discarded Old New York. And when a robotic humanoid from this last place asks his creator about his existence, the designer says 'I gave you poetry...To regulate you. To eliminate the extremes...I could program you to be helpful and kind, but I wanted to give you some moral sense as well...I thought that if you were programmed with the work of great poets, you'd be better able to appreciate the consequences of your actions.'Of Whitman's poetry Cunningham introduces in each story the lines 'What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.' And for this reader therein lies the magical beauty of this strange but enormously successful book. Cunningham's way with words is luminously simple: 'It seemed possible. It did not seem possible'. And with his writing gifts he has created another wonder. Grady Harp
When in 1989 Alan Cumming made his debut in London and was nominated Most Promising Newcomer in the Olivier Awards there must have been prescience at work as it wasn't long before he took Broadway by storm as the Emcee in 'Cabaret' and carried home a Tony. This stellar performance also garnered him the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award. There have been many imitations of his portrayal but none to equal. The same may easily be said of his film roles which include Golden Eye, Eyes Wide Shut, and others. He is kept busy as a stand-up comedian, and writes for the BBC. Thank goodness that from time to time he turns his mega talent to reading audio books. Many will remember his outstanding renderings of 'The Conch Bearer' and 'Anil's Ghost.' Now, his superlative voice performance adds luster to a literary gem. What more praise can we heap upon Michael Cunningham's 'Specimen Days'? The author once again offers an other worldly, eerie tale that probes our sensibilities just as it intrigues. It is the story of Manhattan, not as we know it today but what it once might have been and what it might be in the future. Divided into three sections, the novel opens with 'In The Machine,' set in the Industrial Revolution. This is followed 'The Children's Crusade,' a look at the 21st century and the effects of terrorism. Some 150 years from today is seen in the final section, 'Like Beauty.' A remarkable listening experience - highly recommended.
Specimen Days is Michael Cunningham at his best, once again. This novel is really three novelettes about three characters. All three are moving, beautiful and lyrical. One story nearly brought me to tears. The characters become very real, very human. Everything in this novel is layered, woven together like a rich blanket. The book itself is a quick read but you will not want to finish it quickly.
I really enjoyed reading this book. I could not put it down all weekend and it brought me to tears. I look forward to reading more of his work
Michael Cunningham uses words the way Maria Calla used sound and the way Van Gogh used color. His follow-up fictional novel after winning his Pulitzer Prize from The Hours is nothing short of what we expect from this lyrical writer. Cunningham has set out to create his own style of 3 layered writing and he has, yet again, succeeded. I am consitstanly amazed at the creation of his words and how musically charged they become. Its like reading an undiscovered Frost poem in the shape of a novel, Clearly, to me, and many others, one of America's greatest living authors.
I was so eagerly looking forward to reading this book! This triptych was extremely dissapointing. The beginning of the first part seems like a sophomoric attempt of an emerging writer to show the readers how well the he/she can write. End result: Unnecesarily cumbersome and tedious sentence structures. Additionallly, writing the book in three parts, while refreshing in 'The Hours', seemed ineffective in 'Specimen Days'. I lent it to two others and they didn't even finish the book. Oh, well, you win some, and lose some!