Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book Reivew: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham

Specimen Days
by Michael Cunningham

The information on jacketflap made no sense but I read it anyway, because I loved Michael Cunningham's writing. Now that I've finished, I understand how difficult it is to describe the book. This is a book for which an elevator pitch will be, at best, strange.

Even the designation of the book, a novel, is not exactly right. The book contains three stories, each independent, yet linked. The links seem rather tenuous: each story stars a man, a woman, and a boy, each time with the same name, or a recognizable variation of it. Walt Whitman's poetry plays a large role in every story. And in each is a character who can't help him/herself with words that issue from within them. These is also a bowl, and disfigurement.

Yeah. Strange, right?

The first story takes place right after the Industrial Revolution and is a steam-punkish ghost story. The second is contemporary police thriller. The third is a dystopian that takes place some 100 years into the future.

So what's the book about? You ask. These links are interesting, but surely there is a larger theme that goes through the book?

This question gnawed on me for at least a day and a half before I eventually realized that the overall theme of Specimen Days is about choosing selflessness. No. More than that. Choosing selflessness still implied a degree of thinking about oneself. These stories are about people making decisions to sacrifice whatever necessary based purely on what is needed by another.

I started reading reviews as I prepared to write this post and the ideas are varied and very interesting. Here's the NY Times review, and here's a review from across the pond, The Guardian. If any of you who have read it have other ideas, I'd love to hear them.


Anonymous said...

For a refreshing review of Cunningham’s Specimen Days, click on

Yat-Yee said...

Thanks for pointing David Murphy's review of Specimen Days, Anonymous. I'll be reading his other reviews.