Michael Cunningham

Heller was synonymous with Catch-22; the same might be said of Michael Cunningham and The Hours. After two well received but slow-selling novels, A Home at the End of the World and Flesh and Blood, published in 1990 and 1995, The Hours transported Cunningham into an elite league where critical and commercial success go hand in hand. The subsequent film, starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, with a hypnotic score by Philip Glass, served merely to confirm the arrival on the block of a new literary superstar. He won a Pulitzer and enough credit to pursue his own dream.

The result is Specimen Days, which borrows the title of Walt Whitman's Civil War diaries.

As in The Hours, which was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness novel, Mrs Dalloway, Cunningham gives himself free rein to play around with a classic text. It seems to have worked. One American reviewer described it as “genre-bending”, “haunting” and “a
transformative ode” to life in New York, “a work of surpassing beauty but one of the most original and daring writers at work today”. Already, Scott Rudin, who produced The Hours, has optioned it. History may yet be repeated.

Cunningham works regular office hours, in a plainly furnished, two-room studio on the fourth floor of a brownstone apartment block in the heart of Manhattan. Close by is Washington Square, after which Henry James named a novel. But what was once the heart of bohemian New York is now being colonised by yuppies and celebrities. This is the place Cunningham sums up in a marvellous phrase, “glitteringly blighted”. Like a lot of its inhabitants, he feels at home here but alien to much of the rest of America and disillusioned by the Bush administration.

“I don’t think America is handling its power very responsibly or morally. Americans are fighting a misguided war, ” he says.

“America is also consuming too much of the world’s resources. But, at the same time, within America there is a lot of poverty. This current administration is really only governing for the rich, it is not doing anything for the poor. I’ve become aware of a soul sickness in America.
The sickness has come as a consequence of what America has been doing in the world and what is happening here.”

Specimen Days, which took five years to write, was driven in part by his deep sense of outrage at the political landscape of the US.

“I have always felt that I was interested in telling a good story but recently I have found that my work has become more political.

More and more, I have engaged with the political situation that there is in the US. This novel is in part about America and about the dangerous rise to prominence of the right.”

His latest novel, like The Hours, comprises three tales, in each of which the same trio of characters recurs: a young boy, an older man, and a young woman. The first tale, In The Machine, is a ghost story, set in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. The second, The Children’s Crusade, which is set almost in the present, involves a terrorist group that is detonating bombs, apparently at random, across the city. Finally, there is Like Beauty, in which we travel 150 years into the future, when New York is all but overwhelmed by refugees from the first planet to contact people from Earth.

Exploring New York, its past and potential future in the heart of a dangerously alienated society, Cunningham found himself, as he often does, borrowing from reality to create his fiction. “I feel quite confident about using the real world, ” he says. “There is no big divide between reality and fiction or between history and fiction.

It is a continuum; if it contains enough invention it will be called fiction. Someone like Walt Whitman, who has made such a huge contribution to literature, seems in some way part of our collective consciousness.”

Whitman presides over each of the three tales in Specimen Days.

Born in 1819, he lived to the ripe old age of 83, at times suffering hardship – which Cunningham himself has experienced – and setting himself the ambition of encompassing in poetry the whole of modern life in all its appalling glory. Cunningham has long been one of his admirers. “When I was starting to write the first of the three tales set in New York, I was
aware that he would have been wandering round at that time spouting poetry. And he seemed to be the one person who should be in all three stories.”

But, while Whitman was a native of New York, Cunningham gravitated towards it. He was born in Cincinatti, Ohio, in 1952 and raised in Pasadena in California in circumstances very similar to those in The Hours which feature Laura Brown, the archetypal American housewife. For her, Cunningham drew on his mother, Dorothy, about whom he’s said he had a
sense that “she was a sort of Amazon queen captured and imprisoned in a life that was simply too small for her”.

Unlike his mother, however, Cunningham escaped, first to Stanford, then to the University of Iowa, which is famous for its writers’ programme. Inevitably, he then moved to New York, where he has lived with Ken Corbett, his partner of 17 years.

Among the magazines to which he has contributed is The New Yorker, through which he encountered Harold Brodkey, the bi-sexual writer who died of Aids in 1996. In one of the many parallels in The Hours, Cunningham based the character of Richard on Brodkey. “I could see him very clearly as I wrote it, ” he says. “He was an immensely memorable person, one of those people who was so forceful and sort of big in all of his gestures as to be immensely compelling and at the same time, to a degree, unbearable. Harold was a slightly unbelievable person. I wouldn’t write about someone that I didn’t have a positive view of. Writing about someone is a way of trying to keep them alive a little bit.”

As ever, though, it is unwise to make too strong a connection between fact and fiction. “Most of my characters are composed of bits of people I have known, ” cautions Cunningham, “but Richard’s relationship to Harold Brodkey is slightly unusual in that I was trying to write about a great writer and I really wanted to work from life when I was trying to depict greatness. Harold was really a great writer. He had written several brilliant short stories and everyone expected him to write a great novel. So there were these great expectations of him but the book he finally produced [The Runaway Soul] is prolix and unreadable. And the short pieces that felt like preludes to his great work were actually his great work.”

Whether The Hours or Specimen Days or some other yet-to-be-written work is Cunningham’s magnum opus time will tell. For the moment, he is still savouring his unexpected windfall.

“I’m still surprised by what happened with The Hours. It had a huge effect on my life. It was my little art book about a middleaged woman who’s depressed, a writer who’s dying. It was going to sell a few thousand copies.”

It did. And then some.

Michael Cunningham The Ottakar’s Event Venue: Studio Theatre Date:
Saturday, August 13 Time: 8.30pm


The Scottish Herald
30th July 2005