Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Michael Cunningham

Most famous for the book that was made into the film The Hours, Michael Cunningham's depth of character and his straightforward yet often-poetic prose make him another of my favorite authors. One day I'll rewatch that movie, so I can try again to read the book. It's the only one of Cunningham's books I haven't finished, and I blame the fact that I saw the movie years ago, which generally leads my brain to spend its reading time racing in circles: "I think I remember this. Do I remember this? No, it was different in the movie. Wasn't there a monkey?"

Reading my first Cunningham book, A Home at the End of the World, felt almost like falling in love--looking up at the sky every so often to sigh, because life was so gorgeous. It's the story of two childhood friends, Jonathon and Bobby, who drift apart and together again throughout their lives because they can't quite admit to being in love with each other. They find various ways to be together, along with Clare, who becomes the mother to a baby that is biologically Bobby's but emotionally Jonathon's as well. They build a life together. But the brilliance in this book is the way it presents the characters in all their imperfections, the way they don't do what you want them to do and you understand why. No, the brilliance is how it's written, actually. The plot is secondary. This is one of those books where you read a passage and it so succinctly captures a moment, scene, or character, that you have to read it again just to take the whole thing in. Then you want to look up from the book for a minute to absorb it, read it again, and then dive back into the story to find out what happens next.

Specimen Days is a very different sort of book. It got such mixed reader reviews that I was hesitant to read it, afraid it would burst my Cunningham bubble. It's comprised of three separate stories, three different times, "...and yet the same old human race, the same within, without, Faces and hearts the same, feelings the same, yearnings the same, The same old love, beauty and use the same." (excerpted from the Walt Whitman quote at the beginning of the book).

Basically, Cunningham takes the themes of love, death, and the influence of ideas on people's lives, and intertwines them through three stories in three different time periods. By giving the characters in each story the same names but different relationships to each other, Cunningham underlines the universality of the themes. There's also the fascinating thread of New York City throughout the three stories--places and pieces of history that recur in each story.

"In the Machine" takes place at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Lucas (from whose point of view we are reading) is a thirteen-year old boy, Simon was his brother (now dead) and Catherine was Simon's fiance who Lucas adores. Lucas is autistic and obsessed with Walt Whitman's poetry, he quotes it at random (or is it random?), it influences everything he does.

"The Children's Crusade" is almost contemporary, a few years into the future. Catherine/Cat (the point-of-view character) is the detective, Simon is her boyfriend, Lucas was her son (now dead). The other children in this story have no names. They were raised on Walt Whitman's poetry. They're obsessesed with it. It influences everything they do.

"Like Beauty" takes place far into the future. Simon is an android, Catareen is an alien, and Lucas is a boy they meet along their travels as they escape a modern society that holds no place for either of them. Simon has been programmed with Walt Whitman poetry and quotes it at random (or is it random?). It influences, you guessed it, everything he does.

If this book does nothing else, it will make you look at poetry differently. Powerful stuff.

Flesh and Blood had the unusual combination of being a book I didn't want to put down, and being a book I wanted to savor slowly. I read several segments two or three times, just for fun.

It's not perfect. Certain pivotal events feel glossed over--it's hard to elaborate without giving away plot details. In one case, we know Event A is going to happen, then Event B completely overshadows A, and then we skip ahead to where A has already happened. The reactions of most of the characters to both events could be elaborated on more and yet, at that point Cunningham seems to be pretty much done with the book and ready to tie up loose ends.

And, OK, I didn't like the ending that much. The last chapter had the potential to be a nice moment, but it fell short. I didn't need a summary of the next 40 years in everyone's lives, I needed to maintain my connection to the character Cunningham chose to end with in order to care about that nice moment.

Or maybe I just needed him to stop sooner, and write the next 40 years into another gorgeous novel.

Cunningham has one other book, and one day I'll have to go to Provincetown, Massachussetts, just so I'll have an excuse to read his one work of nonfiction. Or maybe I'll just go ahead and read it anyway. As the saying goes, I'd probably read the guy's shopping lists, if I could.


  1. Ali, HEY! We've both read The Hours and Home At The End of the World! so there. I think that is one of the few we've both read. I read this pre-blogging and it was a fun exercise I challenged myself to back in the day. I was impressed, too, with this author. Great reviews and you are invited to Mass anytime - I would be honored to show you P-Town (not that I really 'know' it but I don't live too far...)

  2. I knew we had to have at least one book in common, Care! I visit my sister in northern Massachussetts every couple years so it's actually not unrealistic to think of visiting Provincetown one day.

    I bet you'd like Flesh and Blood if you liked these. Specimen Days is a toss-up--I loved it, but many didn't, so I wouldn't want to be responsible for recommending it to someone!