three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
18-Sept-Oct-2005
user_rating: 
0

A-SpecimanDaysSpecimen Days contains three distinct stories. The first is a macabre 19th-century ghost story set among the factories of New York. In the second post-9/11 mystery tale, Cat, a forensic psychologist, tries to stop a young suicide bomber. The book concludes in the science fiction future, with a reptilian alien and a "simulo"—a humanistic cyborg—escaping Manhattan for a road trip across the Midwest scarred by nuclear war. The words and spirit of Walt Whitman (the title is taken from his notebooks) wend their way into the text at every turn, transforming the multi-layered Specimen Days into a meditation on love, humanity, and the moral destiny of the United States.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 308 pages. $25. ISBN: 0374299625

San Jose Mercury News 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Cunningham has undeniably pulled off a tour de force … a work of a powerful imagination that finds evocative connections among disparate material. The result is a book that’s passionate in its weaving together of images and ideas, both startling the mind and touching the heart." Charles Matthews

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"It is a love song of a novel, rich and melancholy and overflowing with smartness, and if it veers off-road a bit at the peak of its race—well, even that seems a wildness in keeping with America’s bard." Gail Caldwell

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Cunningham cares most passionately (and most knowingly) about the largest and most hopeful human experiences: compassion, community, art, connection—the infinite manifestations of love. It is his unique moral vision that successfully hinges three distinct narrative panels into a triptych of unified beauty. It’s what raises his individual stories out of their genres into the glorious realm of art."
David Ebershoff

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"… the novel succeeds in spite of itself. It is, in three daring swoops, a poetic meditation on what it means to be human, a cautionary tale about the separation of progress from morality, and an eloquent call to rebellion against the powers that be." Whitney Gould

San Diego Union-Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"All three [novellas] are shot through with the poetry, but more important, the spirit of Walt Whitman, whose soaring optimism and boundless love for everything Human … supplies a heady buoyancy without which these dark, dystopian tales … would founder." Arthur Salm

Miami Herald 2 of 5 Stars
"The tie-in in with Leaves of Grass is strained and distracting. … It lacks the systemic fluidity, the clear-cut relevancy, of the references to Mrs. Dalloway in The Hours, which Cunningham blended beautifully into his own concoction of madness, death and love." Ariel Gonzalez

New York Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"… Specimen Days reads like a clunky and precious literary exercise—a creative writing class assignment that intermittently reveals glimpses of the author’s storytelling talents, but too often obscures those gifts with self-important and ham-handed narrative pyrotechnics. … [Whitman’s] optimism and utopian yearnings stand in sharp contrast to Mr. Cunningham’s dark view of American life, just as his tireless self-promotion stands in sharp contrast to the solitary, inward lives of these stories’ characters." Michiko Kakutani

Newsday 1 of 5 Stars
"Cunningham, a congenitally melancholy writer, has no affinity for Whitman. He doesn’t contain multitudes—he contains maybe a dozen (though he contains them intensely)." Craig Seligman

Critical Summary

When an author follows up a PEN/Faulkner and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel with one that shares a similar structure, critics swarm. Call him audacious, but Cunningham, author of The Hours (1998) and At Home at the End of the World (1990), has again written three interrelated stories and incorporated a major literary figure, swapping The Hours’s Virginia Woolf for Whitman). The similarities end there. Where The Hours was a tightly composed work, the ambition of Specimen Days provokes a mess of questions. Are the similarly named characters in each story reincarnated or do they just share the same moniker? Are the stories connected by technique or by a greater thematic element? Is the use of Whitman just one more literary device or central to the novel’s theme? These unanswered questions account for the wide span of critical opinion.