Michael Cunningham Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

(The entire section is 2179 words.)