Michael Cunningham is the author of The Hours, subsequently filmed with Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep, and I was reading his new novel Specimen Days with moderate pleasure when I came across the following sentences. "Maybe future generations would prize those spangled Orlon sweaters from Nassau Street. Maybe things would fall so far that a pair of cardboard imitation-alligator shoes made in Taiwan would look like artifacts of a golden age" (page 105).
This has all the appearances of a serious slur on Taiwan, using "made in Taiwan" to reinforce an impression of tawdriness and poor quality. It's an old accusation, of course, but anyone living here knows it's an out-dated one. Cunningham should be ashamed of such an unthinking, automatic association of Taiwan with down-market cheapness and commercial deception. The passage is reminiscent of the scandal over an
advertisement in the London subway some years ago carrying similar implications. In that instance the advertisement was removed.
Nevertheless, once I'd got over the shock of this, I think I was able to assess Cunningham's latest offering without bias. It's called a novel, but in reality it's three stories, as was The Hours, this time all set in New York, though the action of the last one moves on to Denver. The first takes place during the lifetime of Walt Whitman, who died in 1892. The second is set in more or less the present, while the last is imagined 150 years in the future.
In the first story a young boy from a very poor family assumes a dangerous industrial job that has already killed his brother. His fate is mutilation and witnessing a death by fire. In the second an African-American police woman, whose job is to answer phone calls from people claiming to be urban terrorists, encounters one such genuine caller and befriends him. Together they attempt to escape the city.
The last story is very different. New York, parts of which have been made into a retro museum, is populated by genuine humans, manufactured robots and Nadians, green, goggle-eyed extra-terrestrials who do most of the menial work. The manufactured main character, Simon, works for a company called Dangerous Encounters that arranges carefully-graded assaults on sexual masochists who enjoy being mugged and carry with them the agreed fee for the mugger to, with an appropriate show of force, take off them.
He too flees the city, this time in the company of a Nadian called Catareen. In the irradiated wastes of the Midwest they encounter a community of religious weirdoes, one of whom turns out to be the very scientist who originally created Simon in a laboratory. They're planning to migrate to a distant planet in what feels like a homemade space-ship, a voyage that will take them 38 years.
The degree to which the stories are linked is debatable. Characters' names -- Simon, Luke, Catherine (Cat in the second, Catareen in the third) carry on from one story into the next. There is a small China bowl that surfaces in each (echoing Henry James's Golden Bowl it would be characteristic of Cunningham if it did) -- and all the stories evoke a New York that is best escaped from. As for deeper parallels, these are a matter for conjecture.
And then there is Whitman, also the author of a work called Specimen Days and a major presence here in all three stories. In the first the boy has learned much of Leaves of Grass by heart, and astonishes the poet when they meet on the street by reciting streams of his lines back to him. In the second the would-be suicide bombers have been taught Whitman by their mentor, and through his verse a belief that when people die they merely become the grass and the trees, and so no great harm is done to them. In the last tale, the