Walt Whitman made extravagant claims to immortality. Not content to rely on literary staying power, or on the capacity of repetition to make something seem true–“It avails not, time nor place–distance avails not. I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence”–he conceived his work as a body in which his spirit would live on. All flesh is grass; grass is “the beautiful uncut hair of graves”; and Leaves of Grass claims to be nothing less than Whitman’s flesh made word: “thrusting me beneath your clothing,/Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip,/Carry me when you go forth over land or sea…”
Whitman might seem to be an ideal subject for Michael Cunningham, who has long been preoccupied with where the dead go and how they live among us, with what persists about the human heart and with the afterlife of writers in their readers’ minds. In his wonderful 1990 novel, A Home at the End of the World, two young men, once lovers, scarred by childhood losses, form a family with an older woman; the book traces the way memories of 1950s family life, and of its breakdown, haunt the shifting currents of sex and friendship on the bohemian fringes of 1980s New York. Bobby, whose beloved older brother died as a young teenager, feels himself absent from his own life until he has a kitchen revelation of his brother’s presence: “It came to me that death itself could be a more distant form of participation in the continuing history of the world. Death could be like this, a simultaneous presence and absence while your friends continued to chat among the lamps and furniture about someone who was no longer you.”
In The Hours, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, the past and the dead persist through a literary text, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which haunts the lives of two women years after Woolf’s death and the texture of Cunningham’s prose: “Laura Brown is trying to lose herself. No, that’s not it exactly–she is trying to keep herself by gaining entry into a parallel world….Already her bedroom (no, their bedroom) feels more densely inhabited, more actual, because a character named Mrs. Dalloway is on her way to buy flowers.” Part of the book’s magic is that it is at once steeped in the sensibility and purposes of Woolf’s work and surprisingly free of the imaginative limits such a project might impose–just as a reader, absorbed in a novel pored over on the subway or after the kids are in bed, might find it coloring but not controlling everything in her life. Like The Master, Colm Tóibin’s recent fictional foray into the mind of Henry James, The Hours celebrates the secret intimacy of reader and writer. Influence bursts out of the literary closet, flaunting itself as the truest form of love; Laura checks into a hotel to read almost as guiltily as an adulteress.
Of course, The Hours is also a ghost story: Mrs. Dalloway threads through the lives of Laura in 1940s Los Angeles, Clarissa Vaughan in contemporary New York and Woolf herself, pregnant with the idea of suicide. Specimen Days is more directly concerned with the uncanny aspect of immortality. It, too, consists of three different stories under the sign of another writer, separated in this case by genre as well as long periods of time. The presiding spirit is Whitman, who gives the book its title and its epigraph, but at his elbow is the father of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. The first piece is a Gothic historical fantasy; the second a hard-boiled thriller set sometime after September 11; the third a science fiction tale in which New York has become a theme park where tourists pay to be mugged by “simulos.” The stories are linked by the names of the three main characters, who may or may not be reincarnated from one story to the next–one of them, Luke or Lucas, is always a deformed, pale, pumpkin-headed child. They are also linked by Leaves of Grass, compulsively quoted by a character in each story who relies on it (as Bobby or Laura might) to supply some missing life force or human quality.
Both Woolf and Whitman were committed to the detailed recording of shifting impressions; both were bisexual. Otherwise, the sensitive Bloomsbury princess and the bearded son of Paumanok have little in common. If The Hours was written out of passionate affinity, Specimen Days feels more like a battle. Cunningham’s flair for subtle forms of empathy is at odds with Whitman’s ravenous need for self- expression and often gives way to the kind of pastiche he scrupulously avoided in The Hours, not so much of Whitman himself as of the genres Specimen Days so effortfully assumes. There are the usual lovely, incisive aphorisms and images–“here was his secret self, that tiny, harmed, indignant quality she sensed in him”; “Under the hats were bracelets and earrings, arranged on a swatch of faded blue velvet, gleaming like brave little gestures of defeat”; “He loved himself for loving his father. It was the best he could do”–but the novel feels forced and fragmented, lacking a whole imaginative hinterland. Each paragraph seems to be conjured from the air rather than grown from roots under the surface of the book.
But as a piece of cultural criticism, an imaginative encounter with the dark side of America’s utopian dreams, Specimen Days is rich and original. Cunningham’s Whitman–as the academic Rita Dunn explains in the book’s middle section–is a protean, amoral figure, “a dervish of sorts,” “writing the poem that was the United States…at the end of the agrarian world and the beginning of the mechanized one.” (He is an altogether more frightening character than the Whitman Allen Ginsberg met some fifty years ago in a supermarket in California, “poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys”; times have changed.) And Cunningham’s struggle with the poet’s seductive power brings him face to face with the violence of expansive individualism, the brutal marriage of capitalism and technology, the death wish hidden in omnipotent fantasies of oneness with the universe: “to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.” These preoccupations remain alive and unresolved through most of the book; they are, as Cunningham might say, its soul.
The first story, “In the Machine,” is set among Irish immigrants in late-nineteenth-century New York. Cunningham has given himself a hollowed-out vessel of a protagonist who has Whitman’s receptivity but not his ego or creative force: “He went briefly into the stone. He was cold and sparkling, immutable, glad to be walked on.” Lucas works well as a screen on which we can see his world projected, less so as a vehicle for narrative drive or a container for Cunningham’s consciousness. All around him, life is being taken over by machinery and commerce: “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.” His father has been “turned to leather by his years in the tannery,” his dark eyes “set like jewels”; a machine does his breathing for him. The city itself is an incomprehensible machine. And his brother Simon has been crushed to death by a die stamper at the works, which Lucas now goes to operate.
Cunningham beautifully imagines how machines must have seemed to those who handled them in the early days: “It wore its wheel as a snail wears its shell, with a languid and inscrutable pride…. The machine was at once formidable and tender-looking. It offered its belt like a tentative promise of kindness.” It isn’t long before Lucas starts to hear his brother’s voice inside the steel–literally the “ghost in the machine”: “Simon’s flesh had been stamped and expelled, but his invisible part remained, trapped among the gears and teeth.” Terrified, Lucas sets out to keep the dead from summoning the living into the machine world (“just as everyone had left Ireland to come to New York”), especially his brother’s fiancée, Catherine. The way he does this draws on Whitman’s writings from the Civil War, of blood and bandages and amputations; but it is not quite enough. The story ends with a reimagining of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which killed 146 young workers, filtered through the memory of September 11:
The woman stood in the window, holding to its frame…. The square of brilliant orange made of her a blue silhouette, fragile and precise…. She turned her head to look back into the room, as if someone had called to her…. She jumped…. The air had a taste. Lucas rolled it in his mouth. He recognized it. The dead had entered the atmosphere.”
Whitman himself is present, the quintessential journalist, taking it all in without judgment, discrimination or pity: “Was that Walt, far off, among the others, Walt with his expression of astonished hunger for everything that could occur?”
“In the Machine” reads Whitman’s insistence on immortality and connectedness (“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”) through the fragility of life in working-class New York, and finds in it both seductiveness and a form of indifference. In Central Park, at night, Lucas longs to be one with the stars and the grass: “What he’d thought of as his emptiness, his absence of soul, was only a yearning for this.” He and Catherine are already “members of the dead”; what does it matter if they participate in the universe as workers or as atoms of the grass? In the way of all who advocate transcendence, America’s great radical poet also turns out to be an apologist for the status quo.
So far so familiar. But Cunningham goes a step further, connecting Whitman’s vision to a thirst for death, and to an idea of martyrdom Americans tend to regard as alien, a product of Islam. Here are the thoughts of a woman consumed by the flames: “We were weary and put-upon, we lived in tiny rooms, we ate candy in secret, but now we are radiant and glorious…. We are part of something vaster and more glorious than the living can imagine…. God is a holy machine that loves us so fiercely, so perfectly, he devours us, all of us. It is what we’re here for, to be loved and eaten.” In the second story, “The Children’s Crusade,” Leaves of Grass becomes the bible of a millenarian cult of child suicide bombers: “They prepare for death, yet are they not the finish…. Whom they take into space to behold the birth of stars.” Cat, the police psychologist investigating the explosions, imagines a child who is essentially Lucas from “In the Machine”: “passive and fearful, strangely empty, infinitely suggestible; an ‘as if’ personality, one of those mysterious beings who lack some core of self everyone else takes for granted…a convincing member of the dead.”
“The Children’s Crusade” is a gripping, suspenseful story, the only one that offers a tight plot and a reflective central character. Even so, Cat is a cliché, the classic black female sleuth, tough yet vulnerable, deflecting everyday racism with practiced skill (“the queenly bearing and the schoolmarm diction, the smiling ultraformality”)–until she comes face to face with one of the children, another Luke channeling Whitman in place of his own thoughts, and the Gordian knot of victimhood and violence is suddenly made vivid: “Cat was seized by a spasm of dreadful compassion. Here was a monster; here was a frightened child. Here was a tortured little boy who could at any moment blow them both away.”
Cunningham writes movingly about the everyday life of mothers and little boys, and his faithfulness to that experience saves the story from petrifying into a didactic fable about terrorism. Cat rescues the child, makes him an omelet, puts him to sleep in her bed. Knowing that he may still try to kill her, she decides that she’s prepared to take the risk and go on the run with him: “he might not, after all, be waiting to do it with a bread knife or a pillow as she slept; he might be willing to do it gradually, as children had been doing since time began.” The ending, with this final echo of Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” transposes Whitman’s grand visions of death and rebirth into a domestic mode where we can connect with their pathos as well as their indifference. The children’s crusade can also be understood as a sped-up version of each generation’s supplanting by the next, from which “no one is safe, not even mothers.”
Sadly, all this subtlety goes missing in the last story, “Like Beauty,” a truly hokey piece of science fiction of the sort that conjures a future world through products and brand names–serotoninade, dermaslough, children called Tomcruise and Katemoss. The protagonist this time is a Pinocchio figure, an experimental “biomechanical” implanted with a Whitman chip and troubled by the first stirrings of something like a soul. On the run with a reptilian alien called Catareen, he eventually meets his maker, Emory Lowell (“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”), who is setting out with his family on a thirty-eight-year journey to a planet they call Paumanok. Simon the simulo attains humanity through the sorrow attendant on love, but the reader learns nothing new. The pat science-fiction puzzle about what it would take to give a machine a soul is a cartoon version of the first story’s imaginative engagement with technology (“And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery”) and trivializes the book’s exploration of what it means to have immortal longings.
What went wrong here for this immensely gifted and sympathetic writer? Winning the Pulitzer ought to allow a novelist to go out on a limb, and Cunningham took a brave risk in moving away from the beautiful, prismatic prose with which he made his name. Unfortunately he’s also left behind the careful human insights that build so lightly and so satisfyingly through his earlier work. Instead he’s tried to combine two fashionable and inimical devices, the novel reimagining the work of another writer and the genre potpourri; in the end the machinery overwhelms the soul. But Specimen Days is haunting nonetheless. Quietly but insistently, it frames September 11 not through the lens of personal tragedy or as a break in history but as an episode in the ongoing life of a culture, with resonances in the past as well as implications for the future. The vulnerable child with fantasies of omnipotence; the dream of an apocalyptic moment that can change the world; ecstasy’s indifference to the needs of others; the murderous potential of machinery–like all the truest ghosts, these things are frightening because they are so familiar.