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Old 17th Jul 2005, 21:03   #1
John Self
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Default Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham was catapulted to international literary fame in 1999 when his novel The Hours won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction - the latter being particularly remarkable as it wasn't a breeze-block epic (220 pages with a well aerated layout). Of course, literary fame is an oxymoron, so his name is still not particularly well known even though the book is, and more since the film adaptation which won a bunch of Oscars including Nicole Kidman for Best Supporting Nose.

The Hours was a novel in three parts, telling the stories of three women all with a slant on Virginia Woolf and her novel Mrs Dalloway (working title The Hours: geddit?). It opened with the suicide by drowning of Woolf in 1941 and just went on getting more impressive and moving from there. It deserved the awards and acclaim. Before that, Cunningham had written two little-read books, Flesh and Blood and A Home at the End of the World. However, with the tang of major literary success on his taste buds, he clearly felt that the way forward was to go backwards and re-write The Hours. And so we have Specimen Days.

Specimen Days is a tripartite novel informed by the work of American colossus-poet Walt Whitman (Specimen Days being the title of Whitman's book of collected prose: geddit?). So far so familiar. And I suppose homosexual novelist writes about homosexual poet might have seemed like an advance from homosexual novelist writes about homosexual novelist, but in every other way, Specimen Days is a retreat from The Hours. Ironically, it's where Cunningham fails to follow his own template where the book suffers most. So instead of cycling the stories throughout the book, as he did with The Hours, giving a rich sense of the interweaving of the lives of the characters, Specimen Days gives us 100 pages each in a solid chunk: first story, second story, third story. With no epilogue and - crucially - with the weakest story coming last, the whole book falters.

Which is not to say that it's entirely awful, or even mostly awful. Cunningham writes elegantly and has a brilliant ability to evoke a sense of place, and the first and second stories work very efficiently, telling in their turns the story of a boy at the cusp of the industrial revolution who mistrusts machines because his brother has been killed by one, and the story of a modern day Cracker-type psychological profiler who gets personally involved in a terrorist case where children are carrying out suicide bombings in New York. It's in this second story, "The Children's Crusade," where the book is at its best, flying free of the occasionally ponderous first section and getting the Whitman involvement in seamlessly: the terrorists quote Whitman and use his writings supporting the notion that "to die is different from what any one supposes, and luckier" to justify their campaign. It works backwards into the first story too, making more sense of it, where it had initially seemed faintly ridiculous, mainly for the young child who quote Whitman involuntarily.

Uncontrolled Whitman-spouting is also a feature of the third story, and here Cunningham loses the plot entirely. The Whit-talker is a droid of some sort, employed in Old New York 150 years in the future, as a mugger for people who want to pay for an authentic Old New York experience. Well, har har. One of the problems is that this scenario is so George Saunders that it's impossible to take it in a straight-faced scenario: and you'll believe me that Cunningham simply doesn't do humour if I explain that his idea of big laughs is having people in the future call their children "Tomcruise" or "Katemoss." It doesn't end there though: the New York of the future (implausibly desecrated as a direct or indirect result, apparently, of the terrorist campaign in the middle section of the book) is also inhabited by four-foot tall lizards from the planet Nadia. I am not making this up. Whether this is Cunningham's idea of an allegory for immigration, racism and separatism, hardly bears consideration - but then nor does the rest of this silly story.

Specimen Days is worth reading, because after the first two sections you will feel that greatness is about to occur; sadly you'd do better to leave it there and be frustrated, rather than to read on and be disappointed. And I'm still glad that I bought the American edition with its dandelion-clock cover rather than the British creepy eyeless-horse photo. It could be questioned on the basis that there are no dandelions in the book. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, although there are also no sightless horses in it, there are more sightless horses than there are dandelions. And if you want to make sense of that, you'll just have to read the damn thing.
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Old 10th Nov 2005, 15:40   #2
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Default Re: Michael Cunningham: Specimen Days

Holy Cripes ! Just read Cunningham's book. What IS with the last third of this book ? I'm sure there is some deep meaning, Cunningham is not a bad author, nor does he often miss the point on issues but he sure veered off into some weird type allegory at the end of this latest novel. Too bad really because I agree with John, in that the first two stories were very good. I kind of understand the author's need to project so far into the future but I think had he not gone quite so radical (is this the proper word ?) the book may have held together a little better.

I read this for one of my face2face reading groups..it will be interesting to see what the heck they thought of it.

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Old 10th Nov 2005, 15:44   #3
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Default Re: Michael Cunningham: Specimen Days

Thank you Maggie for proving the truth of the dictum that if you leave a review sitting forlorn and alone for long enough, someone will come along to keep it company!

Yes, perhaps Cunningham thought the resonance and seriousness of the first two pieces would carry through to the third and stop it from seeming silly. Wrong.
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Old 10th Nov 2005, 16:50   #4
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Default Re: Michael Cunningham: Specimen Days

I read The Hours some time ago and loved it. I've had Specimen Days sitting on my he-is-a-great-writer-so-this-one-can't-really-be-all-bad-let's give-it-another-try-after-all-you-spent-good-money-on-it pile.

So I will eventually read the damn thing, and I'll certainly get back to you when I do!
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Old 11th Nov 2005, 13:59   #5
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Default Re: Michael Cunningham: Specimen Days

SIL,
I am glad to hear that you are willing to leave the book on the HIAGWSTOCRBABLGIATAAYSGMOI pile My face2face group met yesterday morning and there were several members who actually thought the last part of the book was the BEST. Go figure !!!!!!



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Old 11th Nov 2005, 15:37   #6
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Wink Re: Michael Cunningham: Specimen Days

Thanks, Maggie! Do you have one of those piles too?
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Old 11th Nov 2005, 22:14   #7
Maggie
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Default Re: Michael Cunningham: Specimen Days

Yes indeed SIL I do have one of those piles.......however it has morfed and had to be reclassified as a mountain. Pile does not begin to describe!


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Old 23rd Dec 2005, 0:24   #8
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Default Re: Michael Cunningham: Specimen Days

I'm listening to The Hours right now and although I'm only about a third of the way through I have to say that I'm extremely impressed so far. Cunningham's ability to weave the three stories together so seamlessly, linking them with subtly recurring images like the jellyfish and the Greek chorus of birds is very impressive. Throw in the very impressive mirror of Mrs. Dalloway in the story of Clarissa Vaughan and I've been happily dazzled the whole time. From what I understand the three stories are brought together somewhat in the end too, so I'm looking forward to hearing how he does it.

There are a couple of drawbacks to listening to this book. For one thing, it's read by the author which in my experience is usually hit or miss. Golding reading Lord Of The Flies was absolutely amazing, and if anything might have added another dimension to the work. Although he was obviously not a voice actor and made no attempt to distinguish between the voices of various boys as he read, his passion for and knowledge of the book poured through in every word. I have to admit that this is somewhat true for Cunningham as well but his precise and dry, clipped undertakers voice definitely takes some getting used to.

However the main reason that I'm sure I'll pick up the book later to reread it is the simple fact that while listening in the car it is almost impossible to fully appreciate the rich details that make up so much of Cunningham's prose. It seems to be a book that deserves a slow, lingering read and judging on what I've heard so far I will definitely return to it soon.
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Old 23rd Dec 2005, 3:12   #9
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Default Re: Michael Cunningham: Specimen Days

Quote:
Originally Posted by Paul

There are a couple of drawbacks to listening to this book. For one thing, it's read by the author which in my experience is usually hit or miss. Golding reading Lord Of The Flies was absolutely amazing, and if anything might have added another dimension to the work. Although he was obviously not a voice actor and made no attempt to distinguish between the voices of various boys as he read, his passion for and knowledge of the book poured through in every word. I have to admit that this is somewhat true for Cunningham as well but his precise and dry, clipped undertakers voice definitely takes some getting used to.
Hi, Paul. The recording of Specimen Days that I have on hand is read by an actor named Alan Cumming. I have just put it back on top of my TBR, er, TBLT list, to which (thanks to you), I am adding Lord of the Flies, read by the author.


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Old 29th Dec 2005, 18:45   #10
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Default Re: Michael Cunningham: Specimen Days

Be sure to let me know what you think, SIL.
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