‘Specimen Days’ Not Enough to Fill Vial

I can’t find myself compelled to reread Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. The compulsion to read The Hours hit after reading Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter, a novel about abolitionist John Brown, and a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1998, the year The Hours took the prize. What, I wondered, did The Hours — actually a series of narratives connected thematically by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, including segments devoted to Woolf pondering that novel — have over Cloudsplitter to swipe the Pulitzer? I read, and I just couldn’t see it. Eloquent, though spare, language? Cunningham’s short stories certainly had that, and it’s present in the novel. An interesting premise? Connecting stories through a literary figure. It’s an OK idea, but it needs developing.

An OK, even intriguing idea — that’s what compelled me to read Cunningham’s Specimen Days, a set of three novellas connected by recurring characters (though in different forms, including a 4 1/2-foot tall lizard, and times, including a vaguely postapocalyptic Earth in which an alien species of intelligent lizards serves human beings in posts such as nanny) and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. An intriguing idea, but one not fully developed, even less so than The Hours. Each novella works in a different genre: ghost story, post 9-11 thriller and science fiction. None seem fully developed, in particular the first, a ghost story set in 19th century, early industrial revolution New York.

The strongest is the second novella, the thriller set in post 9-11 New York. In it, Cat, a police officer working a phone bank in which she determines the crazies from the real threats, gets involved with the hunt for a terrorist group that sends out children wired with pipe bombs to blow up random citizens. At the same time, Cat struggles with the death of her young son, Luke. It’s the depth of that struggle with grief that seems to lack, though with some narrative sleight-of-hand Cunningham points toward the possibility Cat’s grief leads her to aid one of the child terrorists to escape pursuit.

This, then, was the message: no one is safe, not even mothers. Not even the people who are willing to sacrifice everything in the name of love. She and the boy were hurtling toward the day when, with milk on the table and a dog browsing for scraps, her adopted son, her second Luke, the boy she had rescued, would decide that he finally loved her enough to murder her.

Cunningham doesn’t fully explore the mother-son relationship enough to know why Cat has an urge to redeem or even resurrect her son, other than the vague sense Cat experiences that “…Luke wasn’t gone …. She knew it with gut-level certainty. It was her only belief.” It’s a belief that seems all too common to those who are still grieving, the feeling, no matter whether one has religious beliefs or not, that the dead are still with us, out in the cosmos, somewhere. It’s not a belief necessarily strong enough to compel us to save terrorists, though grief creates its own strange sense of what’s valuable in life, creates magical thinking.

The third section would be fun B-movie science fiction with flying cars, ray guns, androids and lizard people if Cunningham hadn’t taken the B-movie story so seriously. Its seriousness is its flaw.

I do admire Cunningham’s willingness to experiment with connected narratives, but the novellas taken as whole novel aren’t fully-developed enough to make the connections work. There’s not enough specimen to fill the vial.