The Coming Chaos

In 'Specimen Days,' modern society grows more ruthless, morality and humanity disintegrate, but machines learn to care.

June 12, 2005|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

Specimen Days: A Novel

By Michael Cunningham. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 308 pages. $24.

The only decent being left standing on planet Earth at the close of Michael Cunningham's provocative and disturbing new novel, Specimen Days, is an android. It's the 22nd century and justice in America is a distant, fading memory. Cunningham's premise is that books should disturb and undermine the reader's accommodation to an intolerable social order. Enlisting the formula of The Hours, his 1999 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Cunningham (borrowing the title Walt Whitman assigned to his journals) offers three stories to produce a dystopic vision of a United States sinking into moral chaos and entropy.

Cunningham is a canny propagandist for the importance of imaginative literature. As Virginia Woolf presided over The Hours, in Specimen Days Whitman's consciousness looms, sometimes ironically. Cunningham tackles issues, from genetic engineering to 9 / 11, but he integrates topicality so seamlessly that it does not feel exploitative, as it does in Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, or in Ian McEwan's Saturday.

Cunningham opens in 1865, where he follows a hapless 12-year-old Irish immigrant boy named Lucas, who has been impressed into factory work after the untimely death of his brother, Simon. The only human being to whom he is connected is Catherine, a seamstress in a sweatshop, whom Simon was about to marry. Lucas finds consolation in Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

Despite a disclaiming author's note regarding historical veracity, Cunningham offers a stunning depiction of factory life at the onset of industrialism. Paid a pittance, workers daily sacrifice their physical bodies in the service of ruthless machines; the first section is titled "In The Machine." These laborers live on the margins of starvation, their sanity compromised at "The Works" -- where talking is prohibited -- by the mechanized tasks they must repeat endlessly.

Cunningham depicts the consequences to the mind of poverty and hopelessness. Lucas comes to believe that his brother's ghost sings to him from the bowels of his machine. Welcoming coincidence, Cunningham allows Lucas to encounter the poet Whitman himself on the streets of New York -- or to believe that he has met him. In circumstances of exploitation, the barrier between dream and reality breaks down. Matching coincidence is prescience as Lucas, uneducated, damaged as he is, foresees one of the most important historical events of his epoch.

Each story has a Catherine, or Cat, or Catareen, a Simon, a Lucas (Luke). An exquisite painted porcelain bowl makes its way from story to story, an artifact of a world where humanizing art once flourished. Whitman's poetry infects each. "The Children's Crusade" has Cat as a forensic psychologist on a hot line, tracking "cybergeek" pre-adolescents who are engaged in a suicidal pact to murder innocent citizens. Their aim is to undermine the complacent and ruthless society of late capitalism by demonstrating that no one is safe. "How many Bolsheviks had brought down the czar?" Cat wonders.

The first kamikaze explosion is close to "Ground Zero." Another occurs in Central Park. One involves the murder of a rich man, the other an African-American, who works at Burger King. The larger violence of American world hegemony has come home. "The danger that had infected the air for the last few years was stirred up now," Cunningham writes. Visiting an old building, Catherine wonders whether this is the site of the Triangle factory fire where doors were locked to keep workers from leaving early and many women burned to death.

The violence of "In The Machine" visited upon factory workers now involves a mindless striking out by children steeped in messianic religion, as a deranged citizenry wreaks vengeance upon itself. "Christians" are winning the elections that remain, their intolerance not good news "for simulos, or any other artificial." The press, Cunningham suggests, is another agent of destruction as the New York Post fabricates that one of the young bombers had cried out, "Allah is great!" Islam had nothing whatsoever to do with the home-grown violence visited upon these shores. Walt Whitman with his non-judgmental, all-embracing universalist and undiscriminating affection for man and nature ("we go on in the grass. We go on in the trees") has been enlisted to justify murder and mayhem. Whitman's acceptance of all things amounts to an acquiescence in the status quo, which eliminates any passionate outcry against injustice, let alone efforts at remedy.

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