Review

Specimen Days

by Michael Cunningham



Michael Cunningham's daring, highly original and poignant novel
spans an American era from the 19th-century dawn of the industrial
revolution, through post-9/11 to 150 years into the future.
Cunningham has created three characters to tell the story in three
novellas, each featuring a man named Simon, a boy named Lucas and a
lovely lady named Catherine. Yet SPECIMEN DAYS is not about time
travel, and in the strictest sense it is not science fiction or
fantasy, although the point might be argued by those with a literal
bent.

"In the Machine" finds Simon already dead, a victim of a sheet
metal stamping machine in an 1800s Manhattan foundry. Simon was
engaged to marry Catherine, a seamstress in a sweatshop, when he
died, and his 14-year-old brother Lucas is given Simon's job at the
same machine to help support his ailing parents. Lucas is half in
love with Catherine and feels overly protective of her. He believes
the machine to be inhabited by his brother's spirit, and the
relationship between Lucas, Simon in the machine, and Catherine is
colored by this compulsion.

"The Children's Crusade" takes place in early 21st-century
Manhattan where a band of children have been programmed to commit
individual, random terrorist attacks against individuals on the
streets, blowing up themselves and their victims in a deadly
embrace. Simon and Catherine, interracial lovers in this story,
become embroiled in the plot as Catherine, through her job as a
police officer, encounters one of the children, named Luke.

"Like Beauty" finds our three characters again 150 years into the
future. The Children's Crusade of the early 21st-century has
reduced the planet to a radioactive wilderness, just now recovering
from the chaos that the reader never encounters in the middle story
--- although the threat is clearly there. Simon in this incarnation
is an experimental android, programmed to feel human-like emotions,
yet destined to live out his product life as a re-enactment mugger
entertaining tourists in a Central Park historical theme park. To
divulge Catherine and Lucas's roles would disclose too much.

As in THE HOURS, where Cunningham called on Virginia Woolf as his
muse, Walt Whitman's LEAVES OF GRASS plays a prominent but subtler
role in each story. The slightly damaged young Lucas of "In the
Machine" spouts unbidden lines from his idol's writings, in
Tourette's syndrome fashion, finding the beauty of the language the
only way he can communicate with the fair Catherine. Whitman is the
only exposure to the outside world the pitiable programmed children
of "Like Beauty" encounter, as their Spartan cells are papered with
pages from the book by their manic oppressor. And in "Like Beauty,"
it is Whitman's poetry that infuses the android Simon with his
human emotions.

Cunningham clearly is one of America's most imaginative writers
whose talents deserve the awards and accolades bestowed on him. THE
HOURS won Cunningham a Pulitzer and the PENN/Faulkner award, and
the movie made from this bestselling novel took home its share of
Oscars. SPECIMEN DAYS will bring him new fans as he flexes his
writing muscle to explore new genres.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 23, 2011

Specimen Days
by Michael Cunningham

  • Publication Date: June 7, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ISBN-10: 0374299625
  • ISBN-13: 9780374299620