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Whiffs of Whitman

Cunninghams narratives look for mystical connections

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In addition to being one of America's finest prose stylists, Michael Cunningham has an uncanny knack for making himself a vessel for other writers.

He did it with his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours, which conjured Virginia Woolf, and he does it again here, brilliantly and with great delicacy, in Specimen Days, which grows from Walt Whitman's unsung masterpiece like a beautiful orchid.

Published in 1882, Whitman's "Specimen Days" describes dead, dying or maimed soldiers in the Civil War and memorializes the assassinated President Lincoln. It also includes journal entries of the most staggering beauty. The contrast is striking -- the "procreant urge" remains strong, but snaps suddenly into hard reverse.

Cunningham's novel looks to "Specimen Days" and ties the scenes of death and destruction Whitman witnessed 150 years ago to those Americans saw on television after 9/11. Cunningham has said this book is about prophecy, in Whitman's sense of the word.

"The word 'prophecy,'" Whitman wrote, "is much misused; it seems narrow'd to prediction merely. That is not the main sense of the Hebrew word translated 'prophet'; it means one whose mind bubbles and pours forth like a fountain, from inner divine spontaneities revealing God."

So this triptych of narratives introduces prophetic individuals seeking a mystical connection to the world through creation. But in a 21st-century world, in which suicide bombers believe they ensure everlasting life by taking their own (and those of many others), creation often involves destruction.

Set in New York City during the Industrial Revolution, the first section features a deformed 12-year-old named Lucas, whose brother, Simon, recently was killed at a factory. Lucas responds to conversation with quotes from Whitman's work. Needless to say, this makes him a bit of an outcast. Out of respect and financial desperation, he has taken over Simon's job. When he discovers his brother's betrothed could use some help, he sweetly desires to assume Simon's role there, too.

For all its brotherly love, "In the Machine" is not a chummy tale. Lucas' parents are haunted shells, convinced their dead son speaks to them through machines. Lucas' father sips from an iron lung, inhaling Simon's ghost with each breath. His mother rarely rises from her bed, transfixed by the songs Simon sings from a creaky music box.

This is strange material, far outside Cunningham's previous reach, but he spools his talent generously, writing a kind of mystical ghost story.

Next, he dunks us into the second narrative, "The Children's Crusade," a taut, thriller-like tale set in present-day New York City in which a group of child terrorists named "the family" and schooled in Whitman blow themselves up on the city's streets, taking others' lives with them, of course.

Halfway through, Whitman makes an appearance as a crazy old woman who has raised a trio of orphans in a small apartment, papered from floor to ceiling in pages from Leaves of Grass.

If Whitman is this book's guardian angel, New York City is its primary character. The first section describes a city rattle-trapped and heaving with factories, a metropolis that created a new rhythm for human life. The second section unveils the city of today, a place that has become a major target for terrorist activity.

The final section, "Like Beauty," catapults us far into the future, when people are engineered and lizard-like aliens wander the streets. A nuclear meltdown has made it unsafe to go beyond New Jersey.

Cunningham has penned the tale of a city and a country engorged with death but looking for transcendence, often in the wrong places. It's a tale about a society mechanized beyond our wildest dreams, yet still possessive of the procreative urge.

Like its namesake, this novel is a work of genius so original that it unfolds with a whiff of inevitability. You'll find it hard to believe it did not exist before. That is what prophecy does: It brings the world full circle, creating and containing at the same time.

Cunningham understands this elliptical truth. He also knows that beauty and sadness always come hand in hand. But, he asks, must they be united by destruction?

-- John Freeman

capsule

Specimen Days

by Michael Cunningham

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York)

$25/hardcover

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