BookBrowse Reviews Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham

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Specimen Days

by Michael Cunningham

Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham X
Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2005, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2006, 352 pages

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A smashing literary tour de force. Novel/Short Stories

From the book jacket: In each of the three sections of Michael Cunningham's bold new novel we encounter the same group of characters: a young boy, an older man, and a young 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.

Comment: Just as in The Hours, Cunningham tells three interrelated stories separated by time. In The Hours Cunningham improvised on Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway; here his muse is Walt Whitman (Specimen Days was the title of Whitman's 1882 autobiography).   On the whole, the critics were very positive about Specimen Days when it was published last year in hardcover, with comments such as "A smashing literary tour de force" and "one of the important literary achievements of the new century.". However, some reviewers did express reservations, for example, Michel Faber, writing for The Guardian (UK), commented that the mix of genre styles that Cunningham employs could make it a challenging read for some, "Perhaps the fiction Cunningham is attempting here is pitched at a reader who doesn't exist: an adolescent who can leap straight from Star Wars to Henry James, or an adult steeped in Woolf and Whitman who nevertheless retains a childlike capacity to be moved by X-Men 2".  However, Faber goes on to say, "Specimen Days, in among its misfires and misjudgments, contains more incidental beauty and emotional insight than many impeccably dull items on the shortlists of prestigious literary prizes. And it's by far the best gothic historical sci-fi cop thriller you'll ever read."

Michael Cunningham was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew up in La Cañada, California. He received his B.A. in English literature from Stanford University and his M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Iowa. His first novel, A Home at the End of the World, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1990 to wide acclaim.  Flesh and Blood followed in 1995. In 1999 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel, The Hours. Specimen Days was published in 2005. 

When asked about Specimen Days, Cunningham says, "I never end up writing the book I thought I was going to write, but one of the things I did know this time was that I wanted it to begin during the Industrial Revolution, when we ceased after millennia to be a fundamentally agrarian people and became the mechanized society we are today. I wanted to start there and move into a time of the future with cloning and interstellar travel."

After completing a book he likes to take a few months before starting the next.  In 2002 this resulted in him writing a travel guide to Provincetown, Land's End: A Walk Through Provincetown, and more recently he has been working on a screen adaptation of Good Grief.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in June 2005, and has been updated for the May 2006 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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