- Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham
Fourth Estate, 308 pp, £14.99, August 2005, ISBN 0 00 715605 7
At the centre of Michael Cunningham’s new novel, in the second of its three tales, Cat, a black woman police investigator in New York, has the job of receiving and recording the calls of people threatening to blow themselves and others to pieces. Only because these deranged stories have become too familiar does she miss the one who really means it, a young boy, who, without forewarning or apparent motive, goes up to a stranger in Central Park, embraces him and explodes. He is part of a cell, or ‘family’, of drifting boys taken up by an old woman who goes by the name of Walt Whitman – whose poetry they all cite and whose vision they share. ‘Nobody really dies. We go into the grass. We go into the trees.’ ‘Of your real body and any man’s or woman’s real body,’ Whitman wrote in ‘Starting from Paumanok’, ‘Item for item it will elude the hands of the corpse-cleaners, and/pass to fitting spheres.’ No doubt with his mind partly on 9/11, but with striking resonance for London this July, Cunningham brings suicide bombing, via Whitman, who haunts all three stories, into the visionary heart of America.
We are once again being told in the wake of the London bombings that we should neither excuse nor seek to understand (as if these were the same thing). To read Whitman in this context, and Cunningham’s Whitman, is edifying. At the end of this second tale, which is called ‘The Children’s Crusade’, Cat walks off, after a second attack, into an unknown future with a third boy from the family, a child ‘irreparably damaged’, deformed and abandoned as a baby. Without sentimentality – she knows he is a potential killer – she has decided to adopt him: ‘She and the boy were hurtling towards the day when . . . the boy she had rescued would decide that he finally loved her enough to murder her.’ ‘O you shunned persons,’ Whitman writes in ‘Native Moments’, ‘I at least do not shun you . . . I will be your poet,/I will be more to you than to any of the rest.’ Whitman’s expansiveness stretches to slaves, vagrants, criminals, prostitutes, people with venereal disease, dwarfs and thieves. This is not, however, charity. It is not just observant kindness, or vigorous compassion at a distance. It is a form of becoming: ‘I am the hounded slave. I wince at the bite of the dogs.’ Whitman was not a patriot, insists the NYU academic Cat consults in order to understand the mindset of the ‘family’, since that implies ‘a certain fixed notion of right versus wrong’: ‘I make the poem of evil also – I commemorate that part also,/I am myself just as much evil as good, and my nation is’ (‘Starting from Paumanok’). Rather, he was an ecstatic. Refusing to respect or police the appropriate boundaries, the poet embraces – hurls himself into – everything he sees.
Such moments of becoming recur in Cunningham’s writing. Often they take the form of a slippage when the mind suddenly loosens, and gives itself over, surprised. In Flesh and Blood (1995), something rises up in Will that ‘he would never understand’. As he briefly leaves himself to become his lover, he feels, ‘in the ongoing rush and clatter of being Harry’, not just his hopes and fears but ‘something else’: ‘The sum of his days’. At the opening of The Hours (1999), Virginia Woolf lies drowned at the bottom of the river while the scene unfolding on the bank slowly enters the wood and stone of the bridge above her and passes into her body: ‘Her face, pressed sideways to the piling, absorbs it all.’ In the first story in Specimen Days, ‘In the Machine’, set at the height of New York’s industrial revolution, a young boy called Lucas stands watching as smoke pours out of a sewing factory, and a female worker throws herself from the window (shades again of 9/11): ‘With every breath, Lucas took the dead inside him.’ Sex or death is normally the trigger, but sometimes the reaching out is even more uncanny. Waiting in the hallway of his dead brother’s fiancée, Lucas thinks he sees a goat’s skull on a discarded oil can: ‘He went into the skull. He became that, a bone grinning in the dark.’
It would be possible to read Specimen Days as a novel orchestrated by moments such as these, with Whitman as the unconscious maestro of Cunningham’s earlier books. With its three movements, it repeats the structure of The Hours, in which the abiding presence across the generations was Woolf. Once again, Cunningham turns Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence into the stuff of fiction. Woolf dictated the text of the characters’ lives in The Hours, just as Whitman does for those in Specimen Days. But now Cunningham has upped the stakes. We do not move, as we did then, from Sussex to Los Angeles to New York, from 1923 to 1949 to today. We stay more or less in the same place, but we travel much further back and forwards in time, from the industrial revolution, to post-9/11, to a moment pitched 150 years into the future when New York is peopled by interstellar visitors and by clones. The form of haunting has become at once more elliptical and more intense: we know the characters in each story are connected, but these connections – more widely stretched and less exactly charted – are wilder. And Whitman, in some of the novel’s least successful moments, walks straight into two of the tales. Above all, he is not just read, as Laura Brown read Woolf in The Hours, making but not quite making Woolf’s tragic story her own. Or named, as Clarissa is named for Mrs Dalloway, making her party for the Aids-stricken Richard a reprise. In fact, in Specimen Days, Whitman is not read at all. He is spoken, his words endlessly cited by the central character of each of the three tales. They cannot help it. Whitman takes over their voice. ‘He hadn’t meant to speak as the book,’ we are told of Lucas, ‘he never did.’ ‘I’m sick,’ the clone Simon says in the last story, ‘of spitting out lines of verse I don’t even understand . . . I hate it.’ In this way Cunningham brings a central question of his past novels to a hallucinatory pitch. What does it mean to enter into the mind, or body, of somebody else? (And what does it mean when we say to someone that they have taken the words right out of our mouth?) Is this generosity or terrifying invasion? After all, as critics have often pointed out, there is something imperious and coercive about Whitman’s insistence on making everyone’s experience his own: ‘I have embraced you,’ he writes in lines not cited here from Leaves of Grass, ‘and henceforth possess you to myself,/ And when you rise in the morning you will find what I tell you is so.’ Cunningham wants us to be persuaded, but also astonished, or perhaps even alarmed, by his own aesthetic principles – that you can walk without let or hindrance into the thoughts of another.
It is easy to appropriate Whitman. In the past few years, as the Whitman scholar Ed Folsom has related, he has made some unlikely public appearances: a gift from Clinton to Monica Lewinsky (which led some commentators to read him as an oral sex manual); the harbinger, after 9/11, of America’s spirit of civic and national resolve; and, for neo-conservatives in May 2003, the spirit of the ‘motivating hopefulness of America’ when Bush was confidently declaring the end of the Iraq war. None of these readings is exactly wrong, but behind the idea that Whitman can be all things to all people lies a more productive tension. For Whitman, American democracy was in harmony with the openness of the nation’s citizens towards each other. ‘Boundless sympathy’ – ‘this terrible irrepressible yearning’, as he puts it in his own Specimen Days, the memoir from which Cunningham takes his title – is democracy’s affective charge. ‘Endless streams of living, pulsating love and friendship’ are the foundation of the ‘universal comradeship’ that is ‘so fitfully emblematic of America’. As with its citizens, so with the nation. Whitman’s belief in the Union – or the ‘TOTALITY’, his capitalised term in Specimen Days – is unqualified, drawing much of its force from his traumatic experience as a nurse to the wounded and dying in the Secession War. (Neo-conservatives would do well to read his unrelenting account of that conflict: ‘The real war will never get into the books.’) Crucially, this is not a conquering vision: ‘I’d rather anything should happen to us,’ he wrote to his disciple Horace Traubel, ‘than that we should add one inch of territory to our domain by conquest.’ Nonetheless there are moments in Whitman that tip over into something more troubling: we will build ‘an enlarg’d, general, superior humanity’, he writes in Specimen Days. In ‘Salut au Monde!’, his most translated poem, he moves across the globe ‘in America’s name’. At what point does a nation’s exuberance start to obstruct its vision? ‘Sharing’, as we have seen only too clearly in relation to Iraq, can be a form of domination, and being lavish with one’s own values can be a cover for taking power. ‘As nature, inexorable, onward, resistless, impassive amid the threats and screams of disputants, so America,’ Whitman wrote to Emerson. ‘Let all defer.’
By starting in Whitman’s era, and ending in the distant future, Cunningham has made his novel a barometer or touchstone of this ambiguity in the poet’s work. For the old woman in ‘The Children’s Crusade’, Whitman was ‘the last great man who truly loved the world’, living when the machinery of the first story had just begun to devour and destroy its workers. Behind democracy there is inequality – ‘a problem and puzzle in our democracy’, as Whitman put it in Specimen Days. In ‘Like Beauty’, the last tale, Nadians, an alien species who reached Earth on ‘Promise Ships’, are being exploited as migrant labour. ‘Simulos’, or clones, built to be projected into infinite space, are being exterminated as their unpredicted complexity (they are capable of dreaming) interferes with their function. This is the era after meltdown – seemingly the apocalyptic finale to the Children’s Crusade. Christians have just won the election (‘not good news for simulos’); one president has converted, another is in jail. It is a vision not unlike that in Robert Bly’s recent poem ‘After Reading “The Sleepers”’:
The corporate criminal sleeps in his cell,
Our dim-witted president, out of touch with reality, sleeps . . .
The Iraqi whose house was destroyed sleeps
in a room elsewhere with fifty others.
In Cunningham’s America, it is appropriate to live in a permanent state of fear: ‘Why exactly,’ Marc, a simulo, asks, just before he is obliterated by government drones, ‘do you think we shouldn’t be nervous all the time?’ The first suicide attack in ‘The Children’s Crusade’ takes the lid off the naivety of the everyday, by simply reminding New York’s citizens that ‘we all humped along unharmed because no one had decided to kill us that day.’ Not that you could possibly know, Cat muses, ‘as we hurried about our business, whether we were escaping the conflagration or rushing into it’. When the old woman finally offers her analysis, it is at once deranged and trenchant: ‘Look around. Do you see happiness? Do you see joy?’ Americans have never lived so long, she says, or in such health, yet a tenth of US citizens are in jail, food has to be sealed so it won’t be poisoned, ten-year-olds are on heroin or murdering eight-year-olds or both: ‘We are bombing other countries simply because they make us nervous . . . Would you say this is working out? Does this seem to you like a story that wants to continue?’ In Specimen Days America is living in a state of violent perplexity. The message is clear. There is no threat from outside (the visitors from another planet are refugees). America is in greatest danger from itself. The novel is a lament. Whitman is the hero, but his hopes, partly under the impetus of the very force he welcomed, have run away with themselves, rushed to extremes. The poet stalks a world beyond his worst imagining.
There is another way of reading Specimen Days: as Whitman meets Freud. A psychoanalytic narrative weaves its way through all of Cunningham’s novels, which often involve tripartite arrangements, not just formally but psychologically: ‘We needed all three points of the triangle,’ Bobby reflects apropos his domestic arrangements with Jonathan and Clare in A Home at the End of the World (1990), which begins with their alternating voices and includes more or less every possible sexual permutation. At moments, Cunningham seems bent on a progressive rewriting of the classical Oedipal narrative (all combinations are fine). ‘Whitman liked boys, didn’t he?’ Cat thinks as she looks through Leaves of Grass. You are allowed, sexually, to be whatever or whoever you are. In the last analysis, intimacy is the only thing we can share. At other moments, Cunningham seems bent on giving the basic psychoanalytic story a stranger and darker twist. In most of his novels, a child dies too soon: Bobby’s brother, in A Home at the End of the World, in shards of piercing glass, during a party thrown by his parents to celebrate the spring return of the sun; Zoe, the preferred daughter, and Ben, the grandson, in Flesh and Blood. In The Hours it is Richard who dies before his mother; the book ends with her awkward, but determined and articulate grief. As Specimen Days opens, Lucas’s brother Simon has just been devoured by the factory machine. Cat’s son died, aged three, of a misdiagnosed complaint, years before the story begins.
This makes Cunningham a type of Freudian ghost-writer. Only occasionally are there the signs of a crude psychoanalytic aetiology: was Richard’s mother’s suicidal moment somehow the cause of both his homosexuality and his death? (Along with Whitman and Dostoevsky, Cat reads Winnicott and Klein.) But for the most part, these deaths colour and shape their world. For the French psychoanalyst Serge Leclaire, killing off the inner child is a key part of psychic life (as he points out in A Child Is Being Killed, Oedipus’ father, Laos, had tried to have him killed before the main action begins). Killing off children can be a way simply of asking everyone to sit up internally and take note of themselves, of what they are doing to their own surviving – or perhaps not surviving – world. For Cunningham, these deaths are the future, the legacy of the coming days. None of the dead disappears. Everyone comes round more than once (the formal repetition, or rhyming structure, of his novels is his way of saying this). There is always a ghost in the machine: ‘The dead returned in machinery,’ Lucas slowly understands. ‘When we stand at a machine, we make ourselves known to the dead.’ Cunningham’s novels are a form of Trauerspiel (the German term whose translation should be not ‘tragedy’ but ‘mourning play’). Mourning becomes a form of accountability. The premature dead challenge the living to take their legacy – the bruteness of factory exploitation, the dissociated violence of young boys in the city, the hubris of technology – into the next generation, and, if need be, beyond. Again there is a political message: today’s carelessness is destroying our tomorrow. Whitman’s faith in immortality has been turned into a form of political reckoning. The one thing Cat believes in is that her son has somehow survived: ‘That, and the workings of justice in a dangerous world.’
Do clones have souls? Or, to put it another way, do clones know that they are clones? In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go the flat, semi-detached quality of the narrative voice is the novel’s way of asking the question. Only at the end of the book do you realise that any difficulties you may have had as a reader with Kathy, the teller of the tale – any withholding of empathy, slight, uncomfortable mistrust, even boredom – have turned you into an active participant in the struggle waged silently behind the scenes, as the world first denies then comes to recognise that it has created beings with their own inner lives who are painfully aware of what lies in store. Ishiguro’s clones have been built to discard their limbs to surgery, and then die – or, in official speak, to ‘complete’. (There are shades here of the organ traffic in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things.) Cunningham’s clones are designed to be propelled into infinite space, something it would be unethical to force on time-conscious humans. In both cases, the world’s intent is both scientifically justified and foul.
In the course of ‘Like Beauty’, the clone gets to meet his maker. ‘We were hubristic,’ Simon’s inventor tells him. ‘We underestimated the complexity of the genome.’ The first experimental simulos, he explains, were either suicidal or ecstatic and murderous, rather like the child Cat saves in the previous tale. The first stab at artificial creation simply reproduces the extremes of human life. Whitman was thrown in to give Simon the rudiments of moral sense; he has also been programmed to start shutting down at the prospect of inflicting harm. He dreams, and has memory (again, only at the end of Never Let Me Go do you realise that Kathy’s ability to recall her story, like the early slave narratives, is in itself proof of her soul). When it turns out to be impossible to know if clones have souls – ‘Somebody in Texas invented and patented a soul-measuring apparatus,’ but it was disallowed by the courts – they are declared illegal, and must either hand themselves over to wither in prison cells, or be destroyed. Simon entwines his fate with a Nadian woman, Catareen, who, we discover, was also a rebel in her other world, one of a group condemned to death for withholding part of their harvest from the kings. ‘The attitude of great poets,’ Whitman wrote in the preface to Leaves of Grass, ‘is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots.’ In the burned-out landscape of ‘Like Beauty’, both Nadians and simulos are threatened with death simply because they interfere with the ‘accuracy’ of the world. Cunningham’s clone narrative is as fast-paced as Ishiguro’s is deliberate and slow. His simulos know exactly who and what they are, and they are running away from their fate. This makes Specimen Days the far more optimistic book. It is clearly meant to be a source of encouragement that science cannot control its own child.
The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas once speculated on how different – and how much better – psychoanalysis might have been if Freud had remained true to one of his earliest moments: when he found himself up a mountainside listening to the random thoughts of a young hysterical girl. If psychoanalysis had not subjected the restlessness of the mind to the canon of interpretation. If it had stayed out of doors. ‘Democracy,’ Whitman wrote in Specimen Days, ‘most of all affiliates with the open air.’ Cunningham’s novel ends with Simon riding off across the grass into the mountains. This may be a cliché, but it nonetheless makes a difference that the American myth of rugged individualism has been handed to the outcast and shorn of its association with power. Cunningham, it seems, is finally placing his bets on the half of Whitman’s vision which relies on the contemplative mode of nature and the inner life. Just before she dies, Simon realises that Catareen had always harboured a ‘privacy so deep it was almost inaudible, like the silence of a well’. It is one of many moments in the novel when the extraordinary quality of the writing lifts the bleakness off the page. ‘I had not dreamed,’ Anne Gilchrist wrote in 1870 in ‘An Englishwoman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman’, ‘that words could cease to be words, and become electric streams like these.’ This is Cunningham’s most ambitious novel and, for me, his finest. Leaves of Grass is the text spoken by the characters, but he has named his novel after Specimen Days, which brings the ecstasy of Whitman’s poem back to ground: it was, as Whitman explains, written from the impromptu jottings of his ‘gloomy experiences’ of the war as he sat beside the corpses of the dead, and at Temple Creek where he was recovering from the paralytic stroke that had prostrated him. Folding one Whitman inside the other, Cunningham leaves open the question whether the ills of culture, his nation’s capacity for desolation, can ever be redeemed by the poet’s – or the novelist’s – vision.