Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham’s first novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours (1998), presents a bleak portrait of life in the past, present, and future. The novel is divided into three novella-length stories set in three different time periods. The main setting for each is New York City. The stories are loosely bound together by recurring devices.
The major uniting device is that each story, or section of the novel, has a strange young boy who repeatedly quotes stray lines from the poems of Walt Whitman. In the first story the boy’s name is Lucas; in the second the unnamed boy says he likes the name Luke; in the third it is Luke. Whether any of these boys are cognizant of why they have memorized and repeat these lines of poetry is unclear, especially as the lines do not have obvious relevance to the situations in which they are invoked. Whitman “haunts” the novel, reminiscent of the way Virginia Woolf unites the text in The Hours, though not so clearly. Whitman himself is not a true character here, but phrases from his poetry are used as a repeated motif, presumably intended to contrast Whitman’s openness and his love of life and humankind with the narrow and sordid existence evinced in most of the characters in Specimen Days.
Along with a Whitman-quoting boy, each story features as the major characters a man and a woman (although in the futuristic story, “Like Beauty,” neither of them is actually human), with the man called Simon and the woman’s name some version of Catherine. They are not the same persons, or even reincarnations of the same person, but in each story the man and woman fit the general roles of “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” and the three pairs confront some of the same types of problems. In none of stories do the couples end up together.
A third connecting device is the appearance at some point in each story of an unusual little bowl, presumably the same shining bowl in each story. Someone comes across the bowl by chance and is instantly struck by its beauty. The finder then passes it on to someone he or she cares about. Lucas, for example, in “In the Machine,” buys the luminescent bowl from a boy on the street, despite its high cost in relation to his poverty, and takes it as an offering to Catherine, who had been his brother Simon’s girlfriend. She recognizes that it is meant as a love token from Lucas himself, and she does not want to accept it, but he leaves it to her anyway. The bowl incident in each piece is brief but significant in that at least one person has seen it as an object of beauty in the midst of an otherwise bleak set of personal circumstances and has shared this beauty with someone else.
“In the Machine” is set sometime from 1870 to the early years of the twentieth century. The story highlights the problems associated with the Industrial Revolution and its costs to society, especially to the underpaid factory workers at their tedious, repetitive jobs, always at the mercy of their bosses. Simon, Lucas’s older brother, was a fatality of such a job, a week before he was to marry Catherine. He caught his shirt on the machine he operated and was summarily sucked into the machine and mangled to death. Lucas, at age twelve, replaced him at the machine. Lucas’s mother is ill and mentally deranged; so is his elderly father. The level of their poverty is shockingly portrayed by their lack of food; they literally do not have enough to keep them alive. The money Lucas receives for ten or more hours a day at the machine is abysmal. Lucas is isolated at the machine, unable to talk to other workers because of the noise and the constant pressure to do the job more quickly. He has no one to ask when he might receive his pittance of money, or if his pay is similar to theirs.
Given such life circumstances, it is not surprising that Lucas begins to lose touch with reality and to imagine that Simon’s ghost inhabits the machine and is just waiting for Lucas to come join him inside it. Lucas has few outlets for respite from the job or from the perpetual...
(The entire section is 1682 words.)