The restless, exuberant spirit of Walt Whitman animates the three loosely connected narratives that compose Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham’s exquisitely written but bizarre and disjointed new novel. ”God must resemble Walt, with his shrewd, benevolent eyes and the edible-looking spill of his beard,” one character reflects, and the poet’s role is indeed godlike here, as characters over several centuries recite, sometimes compulsively, ecstatic Whitman lyrics that take on different meaning in each new scenario.
As with his 1998 Pulitzer winner, The Hours, Cunningham has set his three stories in three different eras, though here he stitches them together with far less finesse. In the grim fever dream that begins the triptych, Lucas, ”a misshapen boy with a walleye and a pumpkin head and a habit of speaking in fits,” wanders the grimy, teeming streets of 19th-century Manhattan, occasionally crossing paths with the great poet himself. At 12, Lucas has dropped out of school to toil in a miserable factory, operating the same ”not quite inanimate” machine that recently devoured his brother Simon. By day, Lucas inhabits an industrial hell; by night, he escapes into Leaves of Grass, which has intoxicated him with its call to celebration. Either a visionary or a lunatic, Lucas sees in Broadway ”a river of light and life that flowed through the shades and little fires of the city” and constantly, creepily quotes from what he calls, simply, ”the book.” He has fallen hopelessly in love with Simon’s fiancée, Catherine, a seamstress in a sweatshop that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Triangle Waist Company. Cunningham uses this obvious parallel to move the affecting tale to its eerie, fiery conclusion.
Sharp and nightmarish, this odd piece could easily stand alone. But Cunningham has bigger ambitions. The novel’s middle segment unfolds in another moment of wrenching historical change: chilly, paranoid post-9/11 Manhattan. The protagonist, Cat, has a dead son named Luke, a boyfriend named Simon, and a job as a police psychologist assessing the terrorist threats of deranged phone callers. When an adolescent boy calls vowing to blow someone up, she reflexively dismisses him as the ”standard cybergeek sitting in a smelly boy-room that no force on earth could make him clean, surrounded by Big Gulp cups and remote controls.” But she is wrong: He’s the first killer from a cult of lost, alienated, Whitman-quoting boys. The novella, which begins as a noir thriller, winds up much more twisted and interesting.
But its links to the book’s first section never jell, and any hopes that Cunningham will unveil some lovely thematic bridge in the third act are quickly dashed by the campy, underimagined love story set 150 years in the future. The hero, another Simon, is a simulated human who enacts sexually charged muggings in an ”Old New York” theme park for willing clients. But unlike other robotic ”simulos,” Simon has been programmed to spontaneously recite Whitman — so he might have ”some moral sense.” And so he does. The world has recently been settled by an underclass of gentle aliens called Nadians, and despite cultural prejudice, Simon finds himself drawn to an enigmatic Nadian named Catareen — ”by Earth standards a four-and-a-half-foot-tall lizard with prominent nostrils and eyes slightly smaller than golf balls.” Not everyone’s cup of tea, but Simon’s attachment to this creature triggers a series of moral dilemmas that he solves with poetic grace. Unfortunately, the imaginary creatures, jerry-built reality, and wacky story line break the spell Cunningham has cast earlier — and bring the otherwise intriguing if incomplete work to an abrupt crash landing.