...<em.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 ...three novellas that make up Specimen Days each play with a different literary genre — the ghost story, the detective story, the sci-fi thriller — and each takes place (at least in part) in New York City ... sympathetic characters who are both brought together and estranged from one another by their sense of being outsiders ...completely buried beneath a heavy lacquer of self-conscious writerly effects. Chief among these superfluous devices is the author's clumsy invocation of Walt Whitman in all three stories ...in the end [the novellas] amount to nothing but gratuitous and pretentious blather.
It would be possible to read Specimen Days as a novel orchestrated by moments such as these, with Whitman as the unconscious maestro of Cunningham’s earlier books. With its three movements, it repeats the structure of The Hours... We stay more or less in the same place, but we travel much further back and forwards in time, from the industrial revolution, to post-9/11, to a moment pitched 150 years into the future when New York is peopled by interstellar visitors and by clones ...Cunningham has made his novel a barometer or touchstone of this ambiguity in the poet’s work ... Cunningham’s clone narrative is as fast-paced as Ishiguro’s is deliberate and slow. His simulos know exactly who and what they are, and they are running away from their fate. This makes Specimen Days the far more optimistic book ...is Cunningham’s most ambitious novel and, for me, his finest.
...the presiding spirit of Specimen Days — Cunningham's first novel since The Hours, seven years ago, which was much honored and widely read — is that of our original and greatest native yawper, Walt Whitman ... Whitman isn't a major character in Specimen Days, as Woolf was in the earlier novel, but Cunningham clearly means him to be present in every word, every line of the book, in the sense the poet intended when he wrote...Walt Whitman isn't there in Specimen Days, not in the organic, dirt-and-grass way he believed in. Cunningham, try as he might, can't keep his attention on what's beneath his feet for long enough; he's a stargazer by nature ...a very bad book and a very brave one ...Cunningham gamely tries his hand at lowly genres, he can't hide his fundamental lack of sympathy (or familiarity) with them.
The title comes from Walt Whitman, and Whitman's fingerprints — or I guess I should say his voice prints — are on almost every page of these three linked novellas. In the opening piece, there's a young factory worker in Cunningham's vividly depicted streets of 19th-century New York City who spouts Whitman like a Tourette's victim ...second novella, 'The Children's Crusade,' young boys roam the New York streets, explosives strapped to their fragile bodies, reciting Whitman and blowing people up in the name of a better world ...there's just enough of the feel of a suspense film wedded to Cunningham's lyrical prose to make all this work quite beautifully ... There's more out-and-out science-fiction movie stuff in the third and final novella, 'Like Beauty.' This one also begins in New York, about 150 years in the future ... Specimen Days is an extraordinarily imagined book and, line by line, page by page, one of the most beautifully executed experiments of the decade.
Michael Cunningham saw gold in Whitman, saw delusion and possibility both, and has thus made him the sparkling sheen that forms Specimen Days and hovers throughout it ...emulates the spirit of Whitman...is actually three self-contained stories, or novellas, set in different centuries, with iconic figures who reappear in each: a wounded holy child, a merciful mother figure, an Odyssean male ... This Whitmanesque vision of America, a place mesmerizing even its tragedies, links Cunningham's triptych with almost casual grace, so that history repeats itself with startling allusion and precision...the many gifts of Specimen Days is the detailed finery with which Cunningham pulls all this off ...might be disappointed with this novel. It isn't seamless, and each story has a slightly fleeting feel, as though we are leaving one too soon to get to the next. But there's a quality of plain old pleasure here, too.
Like his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours, the book is made up of three stories set in different historical periods by people whose lives echo one another in mysterious yet significant ways. All this is infused by the spirit of a past literary genius, with Walt Whitman serving in that role for Specimen Days ...Cunningham, the quintessential contemporary literary novelist, aims in this book to embrace three literary genres that are usually considered 'beneath' his own: historical fiction, police thriller and science fiction ... While the devices and clichés of genre fiction can make it entertaining but shallow, the narrative listlessness of a lot of literary fiction often undermines its lovely prose and delicate character insights. Readers seldom get both in one package ... The big ideas in Specimen Days have a touch of the plaque in them, so just keep your eye on the nut jobs.
Michael Cunningham's new novel is extraordinary. It is strange and unusual and awkward to describe ... In Specimen Days, Cunningham pays homage to another writer, Walt Whitman, that exuberant, expansive, quintessentially American poet ...works with three even more diverse narratives, each taking place in a different century and each focused on a trio of characters — all denizens of New York City, all, perhaps, variations of each other ...all certainly too much ambition, too much freight for a novel to bear, and yet in Cunningham's hands, this audacity pays off grandly...enormous writing skills, from the dreamy elegy of a haunted boy trapped in the industrial inferno, to a fast-paced, suspenseful urban thriller, to a fascinating science fiction love story ...Cunningham has produced a book equally embracing and celebratory.
In Cunningham's new novel, Specimen Days, three central characters in three different historical periods ponder the same book: Walt Whitman's Leaves Of Grass ... Had he not already written two previous novels in different molds, this Cunningham fellow would risk a reputation as a one-trick pony ...Cunningham seems to have invented his own literary form, and in Specimen Days, he crafts it with a master's assurance ... Names and phrases echo as if the three novellas were connected chambers in a vast underground cavern. Yet Cunningham achieves the same intimacy in this large work as he did in The Hours, fitting worlds of meaning into an unspoken thought ... With skill and courage, he explores the ends to which death can be a means, in a great American novel for the terrorism age.
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 ...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 ...Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass plays a prominent but subtler
role in each story ... Cunningham clearly is one of America's most imaginative writers
whose talents deserve the awards and accolades bestowed on him ...will bring him new fans as he flexes his
writing muscle to explore new genres.
The method of The Hours is even more brilliantly employed in Speciman Days, Cunningham’s fifth novel, which tells three interrelated stories set in New York City in the historical past, near-present and imagined future. Each focuses on three characters: a physically or genetically deformed boy, a bereaved woman and a man whose fate influences, or is influenced by, their actions ... These 'fits' are verses from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which Lucas has memorized, and from which he infers a hopeful vision of eternal recurrence; human absorption into the universal; the faith that even amid death and dissolution... The use of several recurring images (an ornamental white bowl, a fire in a sewing machine factory) and Whitman’s visionary idealism superbly underscore a symphonic poem of sorrow, loss, survival — and hope: Cunningham’s finest novel, and one of the important literary achievements of the new century.
Engaging Walt Whitman as his muse (and borrowing the name of Whitman's 1882 autobiography for his title), Cunningham weaves a captivating, strange and extravagant novel of human progress and social decline. Like his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours, the novel tells three stories separated in time. But here, the stage is the same...the actors mirror each other and weighty themes reverberate with increasing power ... With its narrative leaps and self-conscious flights into the transcendent, Cunningham's fourth novel sometimes seems ready to collapse under the weight of its lavishness and ambition — but thrillingly, it never does ...daring, memorable fiction.