Friday, September 01, 2006

O! Walt...Michael's here

I thought Michael Cunningham's "The Hours" was one of the better novels of recent years. I read it after seeing the film, actually, and enjoyed both. The book was far more explicit in the comparison's between the stories, than the film. His new book "Specimen Days" takes two of the methods he uses in "The Hours," - the portmanteau novel, and a literary precursor, here it's Walt Whitman - to write a very different book. Like David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" this is a series of (long) short stories loosely connected. Here, the connections are in two ways - 3 characters, a boy, a young man, a young woman - reappear in 3 different New Yorks, the 19th century, the present, and somewhere in the future; and in each story, Walt Whitman's poetry plays an important part. It's a complex novel, and the edition I've got, has an interview with Cunningham, which helps explain what many may see as a quite a "rash" experiment. I'd agree with that - this is a novelist overreaching; and I guess a readers' view of the whole novel will depend a little on whether you agree with the underlying thesis. However, the three stories in themselves have much to recommend them, particularly the 19th century opener, "In the Machine," which is a sustained, "historical" story of some power. The "detective" novella that follows, and the "science fiction" of the last part are perhaps less successful, mainly I think, because of having to carry the weight of expectation of this being a novel. Whereas "Cloud Atlas" was as flippant as Douglas Adams in its "connections", this is a little on the portentous side. However, it's fascinating seeing New York across 3 centuries, and, like in "The Hours", Cunningham writes brilliantly about women. Even the female alien of the final story is a wonderful character study. Saying any more would take away from some of the novel's inventiveness, and I'd recommend the book - albeit cautiously. It's interesting that a number of literary writers are flirting with science fiction at the moment, however, with both Cunningham and Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" they're almost treating science fiction as a "costume drama" - so that even though they're set in the future, they're actually using the conventions of classic sci-fi; for Ishiguro's John Wyndham-isms, Cunningham seems to have read Heinlein.

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