“Specimen days” pieces together stories to understand human psyche

Lauren Beebe

“Specimen Days,” written by Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Hours,” is a compilation of three stories: a ghost story set during the Industrial Revolution, a modern crime mystery, and a futuristic romance between an android and a reptilian woman from another planet. These wildly different chapters are linked to each other by the enigmatic presence of a captivatingly beautiful bowl, Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and the following sentiment: “Urban society is pretty terrible. We should all move back to nature.” While Cunningham’s daringness and originality should surely be admired in this novel, greater issues, such as the stories’ collective message and the crafting of a cohesive narrative, seem to fall by the wayside in the face of unbridled imagination and Walt Whitman worship.

The first part of the novel is about a young boy struggling to take care of his parents and his brother’s fiancé after his brother is killed in a factory. Inexplicably obsessed with “Leaves of Grass,” he comes to believe that his brother, and all those passed, are haunting the living through the various machines that dominate the urban environment. Reading this section of the novel, I was hooked. Although certain elements remained unexplained, the story seemed whole on its own and demonstrated profound character development as the plot unfolded and a strikingly original take on love, loss, and ghosts with unfinished business.

The second chapter is the story of a forensic psychologist working against the clock to discover a strange cult of child “terrorists” whose mission seems to be inspired (once again) by the prophetic lines of Whitman’s poem. In addition to another compelling (if somewhat slow) plot, the story gives weighty insights into the life of a middle-aged black woman whose mind is a maze of questions, unexplainable thoughts, and impulses that lead to an ending even more haunting and baffling than the first.

Although their conclusions leave something to be desired, the first two chapters of “Specimen Days” get their message across in a way that allows readers to forgive them for their less-than-complete endings. The last chapter, however, ruins this suspension of frustration. While it demonstrates an even deeper journey into the imagination: where the future New York City is one massive theme park where tourists pay to be assaulted by druggies and gang members: it does so with far less discernable significance and explanations needed to understand it. The ending, though beautifully written, trails off into an ellipsis, which most readers would find rather irritating.

These stories are fragments (or specimens) of existence as it spirals into an underworld of ennui, detachment, mechanization. However, aside from truly fascinating and frightening worldviews and futuristic visions, the novel as a whole has little more to say for itself than a visceral yearning to be freed from the shackles of urban decay, of which I think most of us have already heard plenty.