What I’m Reading: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham

“Specimen Days : A Novel” (Michael Cunningham)

I am currently “reading” (via audio book downloaded from audible.com. It’s read by the actor Alan Cumming.) Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, a novel in three parts loosely tied together by the great American poet Walt Whitman. I often listen to audio books as I walk to work or work out at the gym or drive long distances. I’m not able to do it when I am just at home doing other things, because audio books require concentration–it’s not possible to read a magazine at the same time you “read” an audio book.

All three sections of Specimen Days take place in New York. I’m just finishing the first part, which takes place in mid-19th century Manhattan among the poor Irish worker immigrants. The scene is grim, and as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly grim. The protagonist, a 12- or 13-year old (he doesn’t know for sure) boy named Lucas takes over his dead brother’s position in an ominous factory referred to as “The Works.” The brother has been killed by an accident with his machine. Lucas’s father is ill, his lungs having been ruined by his work in a tannery; Lucas’s mother is demented and has hallucinations of the dead brother. There isn’t enough money for food. The dead brother’s fiancĂ© turns out to be a prostitute who doesn’t know if the baby she is carrying really belongs to Lucas’s brother. Lucas becomes obsessed with the idea that his dead brother is communicating with him through the machine and through his poor mother’s music box.

As I walked to work this morning, I listened to a horrific description of Lucas purposely maiming his hand in the iron works machine that he operates at “The Works.” (In reading, it is possible to skip quickly over such passages; when it is read to you, it is impossible to escape–you can’t close your eyes as you would in a horrific scene in a movie. The grotesque description is there to be heard.) Young Lucas is obsessed with the poetry of Walt Whitman and almost emetically spews forth long lines of Whitman’s poetry as others would have conversation, in place of normal speaking. He communicates through Walt’s poetry. There is a magic passage in which Lucas encounters Walt himself on the streets of New York, and Walt encourages Lucas to explore beyond the slums of lower east side Manhattan.

The second part of the novel takes place in early 21st century New York, and the third part takes place 150 years in the future.

Specimen Days is a departure for Michael Cunningham. His most recent book was “The Hours”, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Ed Harris. Cunningham is one of America’s leading writers. His prose has a vividness of language that is poetic–a fortunate circumstance for a novel whose inspiration is Walt Whitman. Indeed, the language has a kind of Whitmanesque grandeur yet quirkiness. Specimen Days is not a beach novel, but it’s worth the time and effort.

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