Specimen Days, much like The Hours before it, consists of 3 separate yet intertwining stories at the heart of which is the poetry of Walt Whitman. I should start by saying that I’m not particularly interested in poetry, so before this I hadn’t read anything by Mr. Whitman. And this book, though I enjoyed it, did nothing to spark my interest in the poet. Also, I definitely would choose The Hours over this any day, but probably because, at the time, I felt some kind of personal connection with it which I still can’t completely shake off. If anyone asked me about my favorite books, The Hours would be in there, so this was a tough act to follow; in fact, until reading Dragos’s post on the book, I didn’t really want to read another book by Mr. Cunningham for fear of being disappointed. But this is all really personal, and probably has nothing to do with literary value 🙂
These 3 stories happen in 3 different historical moments: past (late 1800s), present (early 200s) and future (some 150 years in the future) but in the same place: New York. A slightly different ode to the city than the ones Paul Auster usually practices, but an ode nonetheless – ode to permanent transformation, to the city’s ever-changing face and to the lives that feed it every day. Throughout the stories we encounter the same character types: a man (Simon in all 3), a woman (Catherine, Cat and Catareen) and a little boy (Lucas, Luke and Luke 😉 ), all caught in a never-ending cycle of destruction, loss, hardship and alienation.
In the machine – the first story has a 13-year-old boy at its center: Lucas. He takes his brother’s (Simon) place at the factory, after the machine caught and mauled his brother to death, thus becoming the sole breadwinner of the family. At the same time, he tries to protect his brother’s fiancée, Catherine, on whom he’s always had a crush and, though the unwillingly spouts verses from Walt Whitman, he does see a deeper meaning in them; he understands that despite the conditions he lives in, there still is great beauty in the world. In the end he saves Catherine from a fire at the company where she worked, but only by paying the ultimate price. This rising industrial backdrop reminded me of a Jack London story I once read and which, at the time (I must have been 12) impressed me a lot. Wonder what it was called….
In The children’s crusade Cat is a member of a police taskforce who receives calls from all the „loonies” who threaten to kill or blow people up and whose job is to identify what is worth investigating. When she misinterprets a phone call from a child, a bomb explodes somewhere in the city, killing a man. Before they can get to the bottom of it all, a second phone call is followed by a second bomb. The little terrorists quote Walt Whitman, justifying their actions by saying that they will return the world to a previous order. The third child comes to kill Cat, but he is not as convinced of his mission and she ends up taking him in. Not wishing to see him handed to the authorities, she runs away from her job and too-good-to-be-true boyfriend and takes the child to start a new life. Since he has no name, he says he’d like to be called Luke, like Cat’s other (now dead) son.
In Like beauty Simon is a humanoid machine (like the Jude Law character in A.I.), Catareen is a lizard-like alien who has found refuge on Earth and Luke – the little boy they find while being on the run from the corporations that now control the west of the US. It a post nuclear future (Jericho?) but not only; it’s the age of a new type of racism, of new beings to discriminate against, a new age where a robot can have romantic feelings of an alien.
There are a lot of elements that go through these stories, uniting them closely: the characters reflecting one another, the buildings and their changing functions, events that are now history (in the second story the fire at the company where Catherine worked is mentioned; while in the third story we find that the children’s crusade was a nation wide event) and, of course, Gaya’s store and the mysterious white bowl that passes through all the characters’ hands like a mark of the damned.
On a side note, my favorite Scissor Sisters song (and when I say favorite I actually mean “the only one I remotely like”) was inspired by the book, because the lead singer is a fan. It’s called Other Side (and the Doctor Who clip is the only one I found).