"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: Specimen Days

I read this as background/margin reading for my dissertation, so I was mostly reading for content that related to my main topic. However, I thought I'd write up a few thoughts on the book itself.

Cunningham tells three different stories, which are in some senses the same stories. They cover what some people call the three industrial revolutions - the mechanization of labor in factories in the 1800s, the advent of computers and other telecommunications in the present day, and the future of biotechnology, in this case spreading to artificial human life. Each story has three main characters, Luke, Catherine, and Simon,whose names and general characteristics stay the same across the whole novel, but who also change to fit each story.

This conceit worked pretty well for me, and I found the moments of time well-chosen. For my dissertation, I've been reading a lot of books that use multiple narratives or multiple times and places, or that imagine a near future, or that use reincarnation as a motif. Although it's a very literary novel, it was also a bit of a page-turner. Each story felt like it was heading inevitably toward something that would probably be terrible, but that I couldn't wait to discover (oh, the suffering we put ourselves through in reading!). I suppose I'd say the best thing about this book is the plotting, both in the normal sense of suspense and pacing and meaningfulness of events in the book, and in the larger sense of how Cunningham constructs his three strands and their overlaps.

What was missing for me was a sense of connection to the characters. I did find them pretty interesting, especially the narrators of sections one and three, but the writing felt a bit distanced. The artifice of the entire structure and the concept made it hard to believe in the characters as people, rather than as literary symbols. As they started to repeat, in variations, over the three stories, each previous incarnation of Luke, Catherine, or Simon began feeling less real. I couldn't help imagining Cunningham sitting at his desk inventing these characters and manipulating them so that they would fit equally well into each story - with the result that they don't fit snugly or perfectly into any story.

The other major element of this book is Cunningham's use of Walt Whitman's poetry - in each story, the narrator has a very special relationship with Whitman, and his verses keep popping up throughout the narration. I haven't read him at all, and I caught myself skipping over the longer excerpts because they were a bit opaque. But nevertheless, the repeated lines of verse made a kind of background rhythm for the whole book even as the individual narrator's voices changed - a kind of fourth voice that spanned the whole.

I wouldn't recommend this book to the idle reader who just wants a good book. It wasn't hard to get into, but it was very easy to get out of. The imagery stayed with me more than the voices or the emotions. A worthwhile experience, but not an entirely satisfying one.

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