Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Michael Cunningham "Speciman Days"

It is a struggle to get back into the “normal” flow of things. The rainy weather actually helps. I have hunkered down in one Newbury cafe or other with my shiny new laptop and tinkered away at my work-in-progress. Tuesday morning I took a break from my work to read the Boston Globe. There I saw that Boston University’s Book Store was hosting Michael Cunningham as part of their lecture series. L. was out of town; I was in a blue funk. I decided to kick myself out of the house and endure the rain for the chance to hear Cunningham read from his latest work.

The minute Cunningham entered the small room and approached the lectern, I was impressed. He just moves well. Tall, lean. Casual in jeans and black knit top. He pulled out his glasses and got his cold water bottle in place before he dove into his novel Specimen Days(already out in paperback). He explained that it is difficult to read from because it is a “big whackball of a book” that has three sections: a ghost story, science fiction, and a thriller. The characters move through each genre. And Walt Whitman serves as a kind of Virgil for the reader (I imagine, as right now this is the best book I still haven’t read yet).

His reading voice was bursty—coming in bits and punches, silent pauses while he took tiny gulps from this bottle. It was an urgent voice. In fact, it reminded me of my attempts to read my own work to a crowd. When I read other authors I cradle each word or set them up on pedestals or shoot them off like roman candles, trusting the semantic magic show created by a “real” author. When I read my own stuff, I am a clod. I am deeply worried that I might bore my audience. Or I want to stop and talk about each detail with raptures of joy or angst, depending.

But I digress. I am sure that Cunningham has read hundreds of times. He was probably more bored himself than afraid of boring us.

As he read from one of the sections, he described a burning building. A woman steps onto a window ledge and readies herself to take the awful plunge. I can’t quite recall the exact language, but an image of her with wide skirts billowing in the wind lingers in my imagination. The narrator describes her image up there in the window as precise and fragile.

He ended the section. Wiped his glasses on the bottom of his shirt. He continued to read.

Then it hit me: his prose is just like the woman he described in his story: precise wordsmithing yet fragile enough to resonate with emotion and image.

Does that make sense? His writing is that woman on the ledge, her skirts billowing in the wind. Ready to take the plunge. A slow motion fall toward death, but a death that is revelation to the young boy who watches her. The reader sees the images he creates with photographic precision and is left vulnerable to the wind strong enough to blow her skirts, yet eager enough to feed the flames that kill her.

He is famous for his book The Hours (winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulker Award). But it is not that work that I recalled at that moment.

Instead a short story I had read recently and an off-hand remark about Cunnningham’s genius took center stage in my mind. Of course: This is the Michael Cunningham who wrote “White Angel,” a story that sheared off the top of my head and wore out my highlighter when I read it for the first time a few weeks ago.

Then I wanted to know: does he teach? and where?

During the questions and answer session he proved to be both quirky and intelligent. At least, I found him witty and jumped on board with his take on writing. When an audience member asked him why he writes stories that take place across eras, he replied that he wants to get as much time into his work as possible. He remarked that human nature has not changed but that the pace of our lives has dramatically altered. Our right now is deeply infused with historical awareness and a deep longing for the wonders the future will hold. He wants to get this sense of our time-consciousness into his novels.

Another person asked him about his interest in writing science fiction. He said that many people are shocked that he would attempt such a “lowly” art form. But he doesn’t see it that way. For generations other art forms have blended highbrow and lowbrow. Literature, however, is stodgy. He wants to play with the forms. Do the unexpected. See what comes. Yes, he thinks that most science fiction is “crap,” but the good stuff is really, really good. And he wanted to take a shot at it.

He was asked about his use of Walt Whitman in the book. He adores reading poetry, calling himself a “poetry hound.” And he worships Whitman because he was “the least stupid optimist” in American history. I mean he is “Walt ‘fucking’ Whitman,” he said. He was hesitant to use Whitman in this book, however. After all, he had made a bundle on Virginia Woolf. But nevertheless, he is there. It seems Cunningham uses him partly because Whitman, a man of our American past, is still here with us in our American identity. He is past, present, and future. And Cunningham sees that and wants to celebrate the miracle of ideas and objects that survive and endure, and even grow sacred.


I hadn’t intended to buy the book. I came to get myself out of funk. But I had been swept off my feet. When he signed my book, he exuded warmth. Of course I asked him where he teaches. Brooklyn. Alas.

The Michael Cunningham Website
(with links to a biography, books, interviews, reviews, tour dates, etc.)

Interview with Cunningham about Specimen Days

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