Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2179
Two of Michael Cunningham’s early works, A Home at the End of the World and Flesh and Blood, focus on family, the need for community and connections, and the obligations inherent in belonging. The Hours , his most celebrated novel, is a well-crafted three-dimensional gem. Flawless in design, it...
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Two of Michael Cunningham’s early works, A Home at the End of the World and Flesh and Blood, focus on family, the need for community and connections, and the obligations inherent in belonging. The Hours, his most celebrated novel, is a well-crafted three-dimensional gem. Flawless in design, it holds up to close inspection and presents a sturdy structure, like a pyramid. Cunningham’s appreciation for form helps him to reimagine Virginia Woolf’s perhaps finest novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925). He reconstitutes the novel into a story of three women, in three equal parts. Incidentally, The Hours was Woolf’s working title for Mrs. Dalloway.
Critics wondered if Cunningham could do for Whitman with his next novel, Specimen Days, what he did for Woolf with The Hours. This question was asked and apparently answered by reviewers of Specimen Days, which takes its title from Whitman’s autobiographical collection Specimen Days and Collect (1882-1883). While Lev Grossman of Time proclaimed Cunningham’s book “one of the most luminous and penetrating novels to appear” in 2005, critic Theo Tait, writing in New Statesman, observed, “Specimen Days is as muddled, and as silly, as it sounds.” The Hours, Specimen Days, and A Home at the End of the World have a common structure: limited perspectives and alternating chapters or novella-like sections that ultimately connect, often to the reader’s surprise and amusement. The novels reveal a unity, a coming together, an underlying theme.
A Home at the End of the World
This work, to use the author’s words, is an examination of the difference between what can be imagined and what can actually exist. A Home at the End of the World is the story of two men, Bobby and Jonathan, who are growing up together in Cleveland, Ohio. Their stories intermingle, and Cunningham takes turns narrating their lives, documenting their friendship, and lamenting their losses.
Jonathan is gay. His mother, Alice, is a whiz in the kitchen, and his father, Ned, operates a failing movie theater. An only surviving child, Jonathan adores his father and cherishes his mother while trying to understand his sexual feelings. His best friend and first real love is Bobby, a man-child whose older, rebellious, idolized brother died suddenly and tragically. Bobby’s family was decimated by the death; his mother was driven to suicide and his father became an empty suit who drank himself into a nightly stupor. Bobby was alone, a young drug addict confused about adulthood, about sex, and about women. He loved music, especially Van Morrison and Jimi Hendrix or any artist of the Woodstock generation. Bobby inherited his dead brother’s rebel mantle and his record collection. Bobby’s whole life could be summed up by the lyrics of a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young or Buffalo Springfield song. Too young to have participated in the culture of the 1960’s, his attitude and personality are frozen in tribute to its memory.
Jonathan has an active love life, relishing his freedom and sleeping with multiple partners. Living in New York City, he rooms with Clare. Clare is an older woman, once divorced and once the lover of a female celebrity, and now childless and living off a trust fund but estranged from her family. She clings to Jonathan and they joke about having a baby. Jonathan’s favorite lover is a man named Erich, a would-be actor who tends bar and makes Jonathan happy. The two men share a strictly physical intimacy and never grow together emotionally. They take from one another passion without giving comfort.
In addition to Bobby and Jonathan, Alice and Clare also are narrators in the book, though they are never the center of the story. The story always revolves around the relationship between Bobby and Jonathan, even when they are apart. Alice worries about Jonathan, knowing that he is gay and not wanting to know any particulars. She wishes Jonathan would find a love of his own, not one shared with Bobby, Clare, and their daughter Rebecca.
After Ned’s death, Alice moves on with her life, still hoping for a chance at happiness. Though Jonathan swears that Rebecca is as much his daughter as she is Bobby’s or Clare’s, Alice tells him otherwise. She knows Clare will never leave her baby to be raised by Jonathan and Bobby, even if they love Rebecca just as much as Clare does.
Erich visits Jonathan and his family. It has been several years, and Erich looks different. He is living with AIDS. The country life, a home away from the bright lights, the noise, and congestion of the city, appeals to Erich. After a weekend visit, he is invited back. Regular visits become an extended stay, and it becomes clear that Erich will eventually die in the country house.
Clare acts as a mother, protecting her child. She lies and leaves, severing her ties with her best friend Jonathan and with Bobby, the father of her child. This is the point in the story where what is imagined and what can be done part ways. It is a lovely thought to imagine that three adults and one child can be a family, and that the family can expand to accommodate a dying man with no loved ones to comfort him in his last days. While each character in A Home at the End of the World can achieve a measure of peace, that peace does not mean a shared vision.
This novel resembles a trip to a carnival’s house of mirrors. However, instead of seeing one’s self, one sees multiple images of Woolf reflected everywhere. Carefully constructed, The Hours is, in an important way, like A Home at the End of the World in that they both utilize multiple narrators, each narrator providing a vital part of the book’s larger story. The Hours features four women: Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown, Clarissa Vaughan, and Clarissa Dalloway. Only the first three characters are narrators. The fourth character, the protagonist of Woolf’s novel, is represented, to some degree, by the other three women.
Each woman is living at a different time and in a different place from the others. The novel is set during a period of one day only. Woolf appears as she was in 1941, the year she killed herself. She is hoping to move from Richmond, England, where she is recovering her health, to London, where she longs to live and work. Brown is living just a few years later, in 1949, after the war and during a time when the American Dream, especially in sunny California, abounds. Finally, Clarissa Vaughan’s story is set in late twentieth century New York City.
In the book’s prologue, Woolf is nearing the end of her life. She is walking toward the river, loading her pockets with heavy rocks, and wading in to her death. She reappears in later chapters, alive once more, as she documents her troubled life and her work on Mrs. Dalloway in the early 1920’s. She is visited by her older sister, Vanessa, and her children. Woolf is both mentally tough and emotionally fragile, and she hopes to convince her husband, Leonard, that her recovery is going well, and that she is strong enough to move back to London.
The first chapter of The Hours begins with the story of Mrs. Dalloway, though she is not Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. In The Hours, she is Clarissa Vaughan, who is nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway by her former lover, Richard, who is dying from AIDS. Mrs. Dalloway is organizing a dinner party in Richard’s honor; he has been recognized recently for his life’s work as an author and poet. The party is set for the evening, and there are many details to attend to, including buying flowers, checking with the caterer, and dealing with last-minute uninvited guests, such as the insufferable Walter. A successful writer as well, Walter is nevertheless disrespected and disliked by Richard. Another uninvited guest is the emotional Lewis, another of Richard’s former lovers, who still carries a torch for him and resents Mrs. Dalloway for “stealing” Richard from him.
The third narrator of The Hours, Laura Brown, is also attending to party plans. It is her husband’s birthday. She is baking him a cake, and it has to be perfect. His birthday is set for today, and everything must be ready when he comes home. Laura would rather be in her bedroom reading, coincidentally, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Laura would like her life to be more satisfying, more rewarding. Her husband and her young son Richie; her house in the suburbs; and her pregnancy all leave something to be desired by her, a hole of some sort. Her personality mirrors Woolf’s own.
The Hours represents time that must be filled, whether one is happy, sad, emotionally crippled, or dying of AIDS. As long as one lives and breathes, the hours stretch on and must be endured. The uncertainty of release, the waiting for deliverance, haunts those who exist only to serve time.
If the universe were repeating patterns, if spirits were immortal, if these spirits kept finding one another over and over again through the ages, then Specimen Days would reflect reality and not fantasy. The novel’s structure is familiar: All the characters in all the stories within the novel are tied together.
Specimen Days is divided into three stories or parts. In the first part we meet Lucas, a deformed young man who has memorized Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and spouts lines from the poet’s work at times when normal conversational give-and-take would suit him better. Lucas has recently lost his older brother, Simon, in a factory accident. He was mauled by a machine. The story is set at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Simon was to be married to Catherine, who works long hours as a seamstress in what would today be considered a sweatshop. Lucas, Simon, and Catherine, or versions of them, meet again and again throughout the story.
There are other common threads in the novel. Whitman appears in all the stories—as himself in the first and then through surrogates in the later stories. A china bowl with strange markings appears in all three stories, as well, and is usually sold by a woman named Gaya who also appears (or her descendants appear) in all three stories. Other than by helping to tie the three stories or parts together, Gaya and the china bowl do not seem to have greater meanings.
The second part of the novel is easily the strongest of the three. This story reads like a police procedural, with boys strapping pipe bombs to their bodies and then detonating the bombs as they hug random passersby on the streets of New York. Cat is now a police profiler, talking to the sick and twisted callers who phone her to make threats. Simon, her boyfriend, is a futures trader who collects art objects and tries to soothe Cat’s frayed nerves. Cat has lost a child, Luke, to cancer. She has left her first husband and she blames herself for her son’s death.
It turns out the boys with bombs have been raised by a woman they call Walt. The boys are lost, claimed by Walt as orphans. The boys have no names or identities, and no families. The home they share with Walt is pasted with pages from Leaves of Grass. The pages cover the ceilings and are even pasted over the windows.
Cat reaches out to the last of these three boys after finding that she is his intended target. In the process of negotiating with the boy for her life, she becomes part of his underground world. She learns there are other like-minded boys in other cities, all loosely connected and united in a cause to end civilization so that it may be started anew.
The novel’s third story is set in “Old New York,” a theme park located where New York City once stood. Simon is an automaton who works for a company called Dangerous Adventures. He is programmed to offer tourists lifelike experiences of the real New York City. For a price, he provides a level of terror mixed with sleaziness to the men or women who purchase his time. Simon’s world is controlled by monitors, drones that fly and take pictures and come complete with laser weapons. The drones are the tools of the larger company that owns Old New York, and part of their everyday routine is to destroy faulty automatons such as Simon and his friend Marcus.
Catareen is an alien, a Nadian. The Nadians resemble reptiles, complete with narrow eyeballs, flaring nostrils, and claws. The Nadians, however, are not a warrior species. They have been transported to Earth from their native planet, where the terrain is unforgiving, the sky is perpetually dim, and the air is always dank. Catareen lives in Old New York and works as a nanny to human children.