Specimen Days – Michael Cunningham

sd2(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

Three stories, past, present and future, depict three central, semi-consistent character-types: a young boy, a man, and a woman. Walt Whitman’s poetry is also a common thread in each of the three stories, and the title is from Whitman’s own prose works.

In the Machine“, set in mid-to-late 19th Century New York, begins in the aftermath of a wake. Simon, a young man working in a factory had been accidentally sucked into a factory machine which crushed him to death. Due to the poverty present in the lower classes during the Industrial Revolution, Simon’s family sends Lucas, Simon’s disfigured younger brother, to work at the factory in Simon’s place.

Lucas has a strange affliction in which he intermittently and uncontrollably spouts the poetry of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ (Lucas’ favourite book). Walt Whitman was a contemporary of the time and Lucas meets him during the course of the story. Lucas is also concerned Simon has become a ghost and inhabits not only the machine that killed him but all the machines that are becoming commonplace in the city as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

This concern leads Lucas to fear for the life of Catherine, Simon’s bereaved girlfriend. Lucas believes Simon’s ghost may try to inhabit the machines at the factory where Catherine works as a seamstress with a view to take Catherine to the afterlife by killing her through the machine’s function. Lucas embarks on a mission to save Catherine by preventing her from going to work. .

Lucas’ fear of Simon’s ghost is, at the same time, a fear of the Machine and, on a larger scale, the Industrial Revolution in New York City itself. The machines replace humans, even kill them, and the industrial revolution has demeaned the importance of each human individual with its positioning of people as cogs in its own giant machine. In this light, Lucas’ fears and Whitman’s transcendental poetry represent the affirmation of humanity and each individual’s importance.

“The Children’s Crusade” takes place in post-9/11 Manhattan, where Cat, a hardboiled police psychologist who deals with cranks and wannabe assassins, is horrified to discover a secret “family” of pre-teen suicide-bombers. The children blow up their victims at random, using Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as their rationale. When Cat bonds with a 12-year-old bomber who reminds her of her own lost son, Luke, her shallow relationship with futures trader Simon is undermined by yearnings for a pre-industrial utopia.

“Like Beauty” takes place in a post-nuclear future, when New York has been turned into a tawdry theme park. Simon, an android whose programming makes him recite Whitman whenever he’s in danger of feeling human emotion, goes on the run with Catareen, a reptilian alien. Teamed up with Luke, a 12-year-old street kid, they are finally offered escape to a paradisal new planet, but Simon risks losing his place in the spaceship to stay with the woman – or lizard – he loves.

Certain themes recur in each of the three stories in “Specimen Days”: class differences, the difficulty of feeling authentically, quasi-Buddhist notions of rebirth and the afterlife, the exhilarating nightmare of New York City, the dream of escaping New York City.

DonaldTrump is mentioned  – this was written in 2005 before most of us had ever heard of him.

sdQuotations:

Fear not O Muse! truly new ways and days receive, surround you,

I candidly confess a queer, queer race, of novel fashion,

And yet the same old human race, the same within, without,

Faces and hearts the same, feelings the same, yearning the same,

The same old love, beauty and use the same. —Walt Whitman

“Only at these subdued moments could you truly comprehend that this glittering, blighted city was part of a slumbering continent; a vastness where headlights answered the constellations; a fertile black roll of field and woods dotted by the arctic brightness of gas stations and all-night diners, town after shuttered town strung with streetlights, sparsely attended by the members of the night shifts, the wanderers who scavenged in the dark, the insomniacs with their reading lights, the mothers trying to console colicky babies, the waitresses and gas-pump guys, the bakers and the lunatics.”

“I feel like there’s something terrible and wonderful and amazing that’s just beyond my grasp. I have dreams about it. I do dream, by the way. It hovers over me at odd moments. And then it’s gone. I feel like I’m always on the brink of something that never arrives. I want to either have it or be free of it.”

“He wanted to tell her that he was inspired and vigilant and recklessly alone, that his body contained his unsteady heart and something else, something he felt but could not describe: porous and spiky, shifting with flecks of thought, with urge and memory; salted with brightness, flickerings of white and green and pale gold; something that loved stars because it was made of the same substance.”
“She’s had a long life. Now she’s going to the Lord.”
“Frankly it creeps me out a little when you say things like that,” Simon said.
“It shouldn’t. If you don’t like ‘Lord,’ pick another word. She’s going home. She’s going back to the party. Whatever you like.”
“I suppose you have some definite ideas about an afterlife.”
“Sure. We get reabsorbed into the earthly and celestial mechanism.”
“No heaven?”
“That’s heaven.”
“What about realms of glory? What about walking around in golden slippers?”
“We abandon consciousness as if we were waking from a bad dream. We throw it off like clothes that never fit us right. It’s an ecstatic release we’re physically unable to apprehend while we’re in our bodies. Orgasm is our best hint, but it’s crude and minor by comparison.”
sd-3“Catherine thought Simon was in the locket, and in heaven, and with them still. Lucas hoped she didn’t expect him to be happy about having so many Simons to contend with.”
“A sensation rose in him, a high tingling of his blood. There came a wave, a wind that recognized him, that did not love him or hate him. He felt what he knew as the rising of his self, the shifting innerness that yearned and feared, that was more familiar to him than anything could ever be. He knew that an answering substance gathered around him, emanating from the trees and the stars.

He stood staring at the constellations. Walt had sent him here, to find this, and he understood. He thought he understood. This was his heaven. It was not Broadway or the horse on wheels. It was grass and silence; it was a field of stars. It was what the book told him, night after night. When he died he would leave his defective body and turn into grass. He would be here like this, forever. There was no reason to fear it, because it was part of him. What he’d thought of as his emptiness, his absence of soul, was only a yearning for this.”
“I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end. But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.”
“In heaven, Lucas would be beautiful. He’d speak a language everyone understood.”
“She’d never been religious. She hadn’t allowed grief to send her crawling to the church.”

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