Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Michael Cunningham: Specimen Days

A while back I had an email from the internet marketing co-ordinator of Holtzbrinck Publishers in New York. She said that she had been checking out the GOB and thought that Michael Cunningham's new novel might be of interest to me.

Well, if she had checked out the GOB in much depth, she would have discovered that might is very definitely the word, because I don't usually enjoy literary fiction. And boy is Cunningham literary.

You can find lots of info about him on his own web site, but briefly his last novel, The Hours, won both the Pulitzer prize and the PEN/Faulkner award. His new book is entitled Specimen Days.

Here is the publisher's description of the book:

In each section 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.
I was invited to download a pdf version of the text, which I did, but I was warned that I must not, under any circumstances, post the URL where any ordinary folk might notice it, and I must certainly not pass on the file to any other Tom Dick or Harry when I was done with it. We wouldn't want anyone reading the pdf and going Wow! and passing it on to a friend, now would we? Actually there isn't much likelihood of that, but more on that topic in a moment.

Well, I did read Specimen Days, and, as expected, I really didn't like it at all. It is not a book that I could recommend to anyone -- unless, of course, they happen to be keen fans of literary fiction.

In the first section, the writing struck me as self-consciously stylish. And if it is indeed true, as the Comte de Buffon said, that le style est l'homme meme, then I suspect that Cunningham is a bit of a poser.

The second and third sections of the book were much better, in my opinion, because to a large extent the narrative is conveyed to us through dialogue, a technique which I do endorse.

Part two is also an improvement in that it reads rather more like a regular non-literary techno-thriller, which seems to me to be an advantage. But then, as you will recall, the author is here 'playing with the conventions of the noir thriller'.

The poet Walt Whitman is in some way or other a common theme in each of the three sections of the novel.

As for the stories which these three sections of the novel relate: well, I'm sorry to say that they seemed to me to be incomplete. Each section had the glimmerings of a good plot, but they all petered out into nothing very much. Only the third had anything approaching what I would call a proper ending.

Overall, I'm sorry to say that the novel seemed to me to be rather an ordinary piece of whimsical fantasy rather than scifi, and fantasy of a kind that I don't like very much at that.

But can we say anything more useful than that? After all, what I have said so far merely reflects my own rather peculiar tastes in fiction.

Well, let's try this. Adherents of 'serious literature' as the fans of that genre like to call it, would insist, to a man and a woman, that serious literature is somehow inherently superior to crime fiction or science fiction. So how, I ask myself, could this book conceivably be regarded as superior to good work (not even the best) in either of those genres?

I am unable to come up with an answer. It isn't better plotted. It isn't better written (despite the fancypants flourishes). It isn't better in any way at all. From many technical points of view it's no sort of improvement on Tess Gerritsen's The Sinner, a flat-out commercial novel which, if you remember, I didn't like either.

That said, Specimen Days does seem to me to have a great deal in common with genres that are generally thought of as 'commercial'. It is carefully constructed to achieve a particular purpose.

I am quite sure that every literary writer lies awake at night dreaming of prizes, front-page reviews in the New York Times thingie, and all like that. To achieve such eminence, there are doubtless various devices and elements in a novel which are more or less compulsory: crime fiction has to have a crime, for example. And literary fiction has to have something that the present or prospective PhD students can get their teeth into. Which in this instance is the Walt Whitman theme and the 'same group of characters' as the publisher calls them, running through each of the separate parts of the book. And there is probably a deeper metaphor in the thing somewhere, because the lit lot absolutely orgasm over metaphors writ large.

Don't ask me to explain what the Whitman thing is all about, or what the metaphor stroke deeper theme is, because it's beyond me. But that, of course, is the whole point. You're supposed to sit around in the coffee shop or the senior common room, arguing long into the night about the significance of these devices.

Cunningham's publisher says that he is one of the most original and daring writers at work today, but I'm afraid I couldn't find anything to justify either adjective.

But hey, you know what? On reflection, I do feel that Cunningham may secretly be the most ruthlessly scheming novelist that I've come across since, oooh, Alexander McCall Smith. In Cunningham's case, his aim is to achieve lengthy, thoughtful reviews, bestseller lists, and literary prizes. What he wants, in short, is to outsell the crude commercial fiction and, at the same time, to be thought intellectually superior to it. And, in his cold-blooded calculating way, plus his previous track record, he may just have put together the right package.


Jenny Davidson said...

I take it you didn't read THE HOURS? I thought it was actually similarly awful--I was horrified that it was so universally praised and admired--overwritten, virtually plotless, coy in its sensibility. The one good scene was the one where the depressed 50s housewife spends a huge amount of time making a birthday cake--it's not perfect, and she destroys it in a fit of self-hatred (and makes another one), and that's the sign to herself that she needs to leave her marriage. The only psychologically persuasive moment in the whole book, as far as I was concerned--it's a slender novel, but I was hard pressed to finish it.

paulv said...

This is a topic close to my heart--"literary" vs. "category" fiction. I talked about it a bit today in my own post, in response to yours, GOB. (And maybe, yes, the merest soupcon of grumpiness could be discerned today in the unruffled Olympian calm of the Bookman, a symptom of reading unenjoyable books, perhaps?)

Glenn Ingersoll said...

When I was a teen I went to some science fiction conventions and read sf magazines and I remember a lot of rage about the ghetto-ization of sf, the idea that it wasn't "mainstream", was labeled "genre" fiction, thus inferior. Considering the schlock that gurgles up the bestseller lists in the main stream (?) I can see the point. I like literary fiction because I like prose with style. Not to say I'm not disappointed plenty. I haven't yet read a Cunningham tho I have HOURS on my shelf. Your review reminded me a bit of something I did read recently -- The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. Auster was playing with conventions of the mystery novel but the story (stories?) came off a sort of Kafka-lite. Not obsessive enough to have that crazed edge. More tiresome than fascinating.

jon said...

horoscope junkie info is so cheesy but we were looking at it anyway...why i dont know. I guess it is fun to play around online. Anyway, I saw your horoscope junkie posts and though it was cool...Alright, well...have a great night, I am back to horoscope junkie surfing LOL : )


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Anonymous said...

Hi, do you still have a copy of this book on pdf? I would want to check it out, too... thanx!

SlideGuitarist said...

I just started reading SD, at the recommendation of an informal reading group at my office. Ech. I immediately Google'd "specimen days overwritten" and found your blog. Just to be pedantic: neither The Secret Agent nor The Man Who Was Tuesday are "noir"; that blurb discredits itself.