"In each section of Michael Cunningham's new novel, we encounter the same group of characters: a young boy, a man, and a woman. "In the Machine" is a ghost story that takes place at the height of the industrial revolution, as human beings confront the alienating realities of the new machine age. "The Children's Crusade, " set in the early twenty-first century, plays with the conventions of the noir thriller as it tracks the pursuit of a terrorist band that is detonating bombs, seemingly at random, around the city. The third part, "Like Beauty," evokes a New York 150 years into the future, when the city is all but overwhelmed by refugees from the first inhabited planet to be contacted by the people of Earth." "Presiding over each episode of this inter-related whole is the prophetic figure of the poet Walt Whitman. Specimen Days is a transformative ode to life in our greatest city, and a meditation on the direction and meaning of America's destiny."--BOOK JACKET.
The first section is set in Victorian New York, among sweatshops, ironworks and extreme poverty, in an age just beginning to become industrialized. The boy, so struck by Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (which he calls “the Book”) that he cannot help but recite lines from it at odd and inappropriate moments, has taken his dead brother’s job at a factory. He becomes convinced that ghosts haunt the machines around him and that the machines love the people who work them so much that they want to consume the people themselves. The boy feels compelled to save his brothers fiancee from such a fate.
The second section, set in present-day New York, follows a forensic psychologist for the NYC police department as she is caught up in a strange terrorist plot involving children blowing themselves and a randomly chosen stranger up in an effort to change the course of human history. The children, all unwanted and abandoned, were raised by a woman calling herself Walt Whitman in an apartment where the walls, floors and ceilings have been covered with pages from Leaves of Grass. For me, this was the most compelling section, although all three stories were fascinating.
The final story is set 150 years into the future. It begins in a New York that has devolved into an amusement park, but the story moves outside the confines of the city for the first time. The characters — an android who compulsively recites Whitman due to his “poetry chip,” an intelligent alien lizard and a deformed but wise young boy — go on a quest together that takes them across a ruined America to Denver and the promise of a more hopeful future. This was the strangest story of them all, but the common threads of character and theme keep it grounded.
Each story is ultimately about love: how it begins, how it can end and what it compels us to do for and to each other. But I think this novel is also a warning about how disconnected we are becoming from the Earth and nature — connection to nature is a strong theme in Leaves of Grass – and the inevitable consequences of that disconnect. Each time there is an attempt to reconnect, to alter the direction that society is going, and a failure to do so. But despite these failures, there is still hope — hope embodied in Whitman’s enduring words, in the persistence of love, in the continuing quest for a reunion with the natural world and the cosmos. The ultimate fate of that quest remains unknown as the novel ends, and there is hope in that too.
So basically, Cunningham takes the themes of love, death, and the influence of ideas on people's lives, and intertwines them through three stories in three different time periods. By giving the characters in each story the same names but different relationships to each other, Cunningham underlines the universality of the themes. There's also the fascinating thread of New York City throughout the three stories--places and pieces of history that recur in each story.
"In the Machine" takes place at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Lucas (from whose point of view we are reading) is a thirteen-year old boy, Simon was his brother (now dead) and Catherine was Simon's fiance who Lucas adores. Lucas is autistic and obsessed with Walt Whitman's poetry, he quotes it at random (or is it random?), it influences everything he does.
"The Children's Crusade" is almost contemporary, a few years into the future. Catherine/Cat (the point-of-view character) is the detective, Simon is her boyfriend, Lucas was her son (now dead). The other children in this story have no names. They were raised on Walt Whitman's poetry. They're obsessesed with it. It influences everything they do.
"Like Beauty" takes place far into the future. Simon is an android, Catareen is an alien, and Lucas is a boy they meet along their travels as they escape a modern society that holds no place for either of them. Simon has been programmed with Walt Whitman poetry and quotes it at random (or is it random?). It influences, you guessed it, everything he does.
If this book does nothing else, it will make you look at poetry differently. Powerful stuff.
I don't want to give away the plot to you but you have to read this book to see how everything is connected and intertwined. Cunningham creates a beautiful tapestry of words in each of the novellas, a stunning tribute to Whitman's works. Though some may find his portrayal of Walt Whitman as less-than-kind, I saw it in a different light. He brought the words of the poetry to life through a story woven together through time. I usually have no interest in poetry, but after I read this novel I decided I wanted to read Leaves of Grass as well (Whitman's original work of poetry that all of the quotes were taken from). It was fantastic. And all because of the impression this book had on me.
There is something haunting and beautiful about the first line of the book, "Walt said that the dead turned into grass, but there was no grass where they'd buried Simon." This is one of those books that I pull out the pen for and underline everything in sight, because every line is fantastically written and emotionally striking. And one crazy story, too.
It was a little clunky and rough around the edges, but I was on board until we got to the alien lizards with voices like flutes. Just...what? Cunningham also should have been able to show that the three main characters were reincarnations in all three novellas without having to give them the same names. That's just shoddy and unskillful.
I get what this book was trying to do. It wanted to be like Cloud Atlas. It really, really wasn't.
Good idea, poor execution.
It has also made me want to find out more about Walt Whitman.
This is not a book for the passive reader wanting only to be entertained. Instead, it demands active engagement. Having only read through it once as of this writing, I remain intrigued by the work, yet undecided as to my satisfaction with it as a whole. Parts of it were fascinating, yet others left me unsatisfied and scratching my head in wonder. Whether that dis-satisfaction arises from the quality of the writing or my inability to connect certain dots is a question that can only be answered following a second reading.
Cunningham is usually a good writer: I was very impressed by The Hours. However, this book doesn't quite come off. He has three stories in different generic styles: historical fiction, contemporary crime, and science fiction. These all have different characters, settings and periods, but they intersect in various ways, and all bring in the voice of Walt Whitman as a linking theme. Unfortunately, Cunningham clearly doesn't get on very well with any of the three genres he has picked. The dreadful plot-clichés that he has to resort to are all the more obvious because each story is necessarily rather short.
The Whitman idea is dangerous, too: if you introduce a far more powerful and original voice than your own into a book, there's always the risk of it making your ideas look a bit silly, and I think that is what happens here. Whitman's exuberance, which is sometimes a bit absurd when you see it in isolation, suddenly starts to look developed and grown-up when it's set against the weaknesses of Cunningham's flimsy structure.
I suppose that's a positive result, in a way, but really you might as well cut out the middleman and buy a copy of Leaves of grass instead.
This book is still worth reading! If you like the enduring nature of poetry or would like to experience a few different genres at once, go for it. The first story, as I've said, is my favorite, it's worth reading the whole book to see where the different aspects of the first story show up in the others. And if someone could get going with making a movie of the second story, that would be great.
The stories were incredible in the theoretical sense and I know that, years from now, I'll have no idea why I didn't like the book, but the way the stories were executed just seemed over-done and over-thought whereas they should have been as simple and elegant as the work of Walt Whitman that is quoted throughout the book.
In my opinion, each story was very slow to start, had an amazing center (I'm not going to say exposition, climax, etc. because those terms don't seem to really apply to this work...it's more complex than that), and finished leaving you feeling empty. Like going out to dinner at a fancy haute-couture restaurant and only getting an appetizer.