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.