In one of my college English classes my professor assigned the book Flaubert’s Parrot. I hated it out of principle. Not because it was bad, but because it belonged to the strange subgenre of the writer-worshiping novel. The writers of these books love a particular novel so much (in this case, Madame Bovary) that they write a novel about that novel. If you haven’t read that novel, or worse, didn’t like it, you’re shit out of luck. When a writer self-worships his own vocation, it too often produces a novel that I expect English professors, critics, and the self-congratulatory well-read to love simply because getting it is a sign of their own superiority. Than again, maybe I just don’t like being left out.
But despite these automatic strikes, and despite never reading the worshipped work, I read and easily liked Specimen Days. Why that’s so is harder to figure out.
In Specimen Days, the worshiped is Walt Whitman, the worshipper Michael Cunningham. Cunningham is better known for writing The Hours (which lauded Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway), which became a movie that couldn’t overcome its Lifetime-Movie-of-the-Week-esque poster to win the Oscar it deserved.
In both books, Cunningham’s prose is beautiful and graceful, even if sometimes it turns a little too purple and self-conscious of its own aspirations to Literature. He’s great at describing a character’s internal thoughts as vividly as he does the outside world and in a way that is only occasionally overwrought.
The fascinating and frustrating thing about Specimen Days is that is actually three separately-told stories. Each is about a third of the length of the book, each is set in a different time (the past, post-9/11 present, and future respectively), and each shares three characters (Lucas, Simon, and Katherine) that are related only by name and by loose metaphor. The three plots add up to a very loose arc with a lot of the interesting stuff unfortunately left out.
Each plot is driven by a Whitman-spouting character, so unfortunately for Cunningham, the frequent Whitman quotes are the most annoying part. I’m serious – don’t ever make me read the trite “I am large, I contain multitudes” again. Ever. It isn't as deep as you think it is.
Part III, "Like Beauty," is a post-apocalyptic thriller told by an android named Simon. It's always interesting to me when a "serious" writer takes a crack at science fiction, since it's no secret that a lot of writers and critics look down their noses at the form. Cunningham pulls it off, even if most of the plot is nothing that the occasional Star Trek viewer won't recognize. It's good, make no mistake, but it just proves that there's plenty of science fiction out there of the same introspective quality for critics to notice if they wanted to.
But, the real reason I liked it: While each part is slow off the ground, each picks up into a real, honest-to-God page-turner. Even though Cunningham gets preoccupied with his own prose and the sanctity of his own literary pursuit, he doesn’t get so caught up that he forgets to tell a good story. And besides, it feels great to get away without doing the required reading.