Michael Cunningham has long been on the list of writers I respect, although I realized this week that I have only ever enjoyed one of his novels (The Hours, of course). I’ve started several others (Specimen Days, Flesh and Blood, By Nightfall) and have always lost interest, though I don’t remember what it was that bored me. I did finish The Snow Queen, but I’m not sure if I would have done so if I didn’t know that I would be able to write about it on this blog. I definitely see this novel’s strengths – primarily, I am in awe of the way in which Cunningham releases information; more on this in a moment – but overall this novel falls into the competent-but-totally-unmemorable category that seems to describe so many contemporary novels that I’ve read lately.
This novel is about Barrett and Tyler Meeks and others in their immediate circle. At the outset, Tyler and his fiancée Beth have a small apartment in Brooklyn, and Barrett lives with them because he has recently been dumped by the latest in a series of boyfriends. Beth has cancer at this point, and spends most of her time in bed recovering from her chemotherapy sessions, and Tyler – a fortysomething songwriter and musician still struggling to break into the recording industry – is obsessed with writing the perfect love song for Beth, which he intends to play at their upcoming wedding. Unstated, of course, is the fact that Beth may well be dying. She might not make it to their wedding; she might even die before Tyler finishes writing the song.
On a typical predawn morning in 2004 (the year in which the novel opens), Barrett is taking an early-morning run through Central Park when he sees a mystical light of some kind in the sky. He doesn’t know what to make of it but assigns it a spiritual significance of some kind. He goes home eager to tell Tyler about it, but he finds Tyler sitting at the kitchen table and working on his song, and somehow Barrett loses his desire to share what happened. He and Tyler talk about lots of other things, including family memories – their mother was killed by a lightning strike, an event that left Barrett and Tyler with the visceral understanding that just because something is statistically unlikely doesn’t mean it won’t happen – and politics. Tyler is obsessed with the presidential election. On the one, he is desperate for Kerry to win (this is 2004, remember) but in some ways he wants Bush to win a second term so that everyone who voted for him the first time around can be duly punished. He can be a bit irrational on this issue, but it’s clear that he is also passionate in good ways and cares about the future of the country. Tyler is also a cocaine addict – although Barrett and Beth are under the impression that he has quit. He does several lines just before Barrett returns from his run in preparation for his songwriting session.
Another key character in this novel is Liz. Liz owns an upscale clothing boutique, and Barrett works for her. Before she got sick, Beth was her business partner. Liz (who is in her fifties) has a twentysomething boyfriend named Andrew, and Barrett is secretly in love with Andrew. Some other friends show up here and there, but Barrett, Tyler, Beth, and Liz – and the complicated feelings among them – are at the center of the novel.
This novel’s strength is in its texture. We are given a great deal of insight into the internal lives of these characters. Barrett, for starters, is haunted by having been overweight as a child and still blames some innate flaw in himself for the fact that he can’t seem to stay in a relationship very long. At the same time, he was always praised when he was younger for his intelligence while his brother Tyler was outgoing and popular and athletic. A Yale graduate, the thirtysomething Barrett that we meet in this novel is still the consummate intellectual, but his wide-ranging interests and fascinations have prevented him from choosing one career path and sticking with it – which explains why he is now broke, working in Liz’s store and sleeping in his brother’s spare bedroom. His vision of light in Central Park also ignites Barrett’s spiritual side, and as the novel progresses he starts going to church, although mostly he seeks spiritual answers in other ways. One of this novel’s other interesting wrinkles is the fact that Tyler was molested by a priest when he was a boy. This incident is only mentioned once, but Barrett reveals that he still harbors some feelings of rejection, feeling (as he did as a child) that the priest was yet another person who liked Tyler more than Barrett, who didn’t want anything to do with the fat kid.
After reading just a few pages of this novel, I jotted a note that said, “Cunningham’s writing style is half Walt Whitman, half Henry James.” By that, I mean a couple of things. Cunningham’s sentences are labyrinthine. He loves the higher-order punctuation marks: colons, semicolons, sets of dashes, parentheses all over the place. He has the skill to manage these crazy sentences without losing the reader’s attention, of course, but nevertheless they overwhelm me at times. Here’s a sample: “It is, after all, just Barrett, the little brother, fat kid clutching a Brady Bunch lunchbox, weeping as the bus pulled away; adolescent clown who somehow escaped the fate that was all but automatically doled out to the freckled and rotund; Barrett who held court in the high school cafeteria, the bard of Harrisburg, PA; Barrett with whom Tyler has done uncountable childhood battles over turf and tattlings, has vied for their mother’s fickle and queenly attentions; Barrett whose sheer creatureliness is more familiar than anyone’s, even Beth’s; Barrett whose capacious and quirky mind sailed him into Yale, and who, since then, has patiently explained to Tyler, and Tyler alone, the irrefutable logic of his various plans: the post-graduation years of driving around the country (he crossed twenty-seven state lines, picking up jobs (fry cook, motel receptionist, apprentice construction worker) because his mind had grown too full as his hands remained unskilled; then the hustling (because he was too much caught up in romance; too determined to be a latter-day Byron, it was time for a crash course in the baseness and beastliness of love); the entering of the Ph.D program (It’s been good for me, it has been, to know for myself that going out into the Mad American Night tends to involve sitting in a Burger King in Seattle because it’s the only place open after midnight) and the leaving of same (Just because I was wrong about life on the road doesn’t mean I wasn’t right about not wanting to spend my life arguing about the use of the parenthetical in late James); the failed Internet venture with his computer-geek boyfriend; the still-thriving café in Fort Green that Barrett abandoned along with his subsequent boyfriend, after the guy came at him with a boning knife, et cetera…” (28)
In other contexts I have often been a defender of long sentences. So many English teachers (including, a long time ago, Fr. Murphy – remember him?) write on student essays things like WRITE SHORTER SENTENCES. When I was a department chair, I always tried to stop these kinds of comments. “What you really mean,” I would say, “is that the student lacks the skills to manage long sentences.” Writing short sentences is a good idea for students who haven’t learned how to use punctuation, but it’s hardly the only strategy that can lead to good writing. I used to show my students a sentence from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that was at least as long as the sentence above, if not longer, and is so well organized that it never once loses the reader’s focus. The above sentence is not as good as King’s, but it’s largely clear – and I would love the chance to debate its merits with a room full of smart high school kids. Notice the anaphora (“Barrett whose… Barrett whose… Barrett whose”) that made me think of Walt Whitman and waves crashing on the beach, and did I give myself an awkward high-five when I got to the reference to “the parenthetical in late James,” itself inside parentheses, so soon after I made my own note about Cunningham’s style seeming to mimic James’? Of course I did.
I also said that I would tell you why I am so impressed by the way Cunningham reveals information. The novel takes place in three different time slots: the morning of Election Day in 2004, New Year’s Eve in 2005, and early November in 2008 – i.e. just in time for another election. There is also a short chapter called “A Night,” which is deliberately not dated but is placed after the 2005 scene but before the 2008 scene. On New Year’s Eve in 2005, Beth is in remission, and even though no one wants to jinx her by acting too confident that she is no longer in danger, the mood is joyful. Barrett hasn’t stopped thinking about the light he saw in the sky a little over a year before, and he is more and more convinced that the light had a spiritual meaning of some kind. Under the influence of the giddiness of the moment (not to mention the influence of some of Tyler’s cocaine, which Barrett has just found, revealing yet again that Tyler has not kicked his habit), Barrett tells Andrew (Liz’s youthful boyfriend, you’ll remember, whom Barrett is attracted to) about the light. Liz hears the conversation from the next room and comes in to tell Barrett that she once saw a similar light. Liz’s worldview is entirely secular, though, and she poo-poohs any attempts Barrett makes to see these lights as portents of some kind. This conversation also irks Tyler, who can’t understand why his brother didn’t tell him about the light on the morning it happened.
And then the New Year’s Eve scene ends, and the short scene entitled “A Night” begins. We don’t know when the “night” in question takes place: it could be January 2, 2006, or it could be a year or two later. In this scene, Barrett, Tyler, and Liz are on the Staten Island Ferry, trying to discreetly scatter Beth’s ashes in the harbor. That’s it. We don’t know how Beth died. We don’t know if her cancer came back, if she committed suicide, if she was hit by a car on the way home from the New Year’s Eve party. There is one more long chapter after this short one, of course, and we do glean a bit more information about what happened to Beth, but not much. I really admire Cunningham’s willingness to trust us to make connections and speculations about what happens to Beth. The more I write fiction, the more I know how hard it is to trust readers to put together facts and implications and interpret a story on their own while also providing just the right amount of details, enough to lead readers to the interpretation I want them to make while not writing in a way that is heavy-handed.
I hope you have come away from this review with the idea that this novel has many strengths – and it does. I do think, ultimately, that it is a bit too cerebral and would benefit from a little less talk (i.e. internal monologue) and a lot more action. While the long, convoluted sentences are well-managed, ultimately they imitate patterns of thought rather than patterns of speech, and this novel needs more of the patterns of speech. I also have a prediction: I predict that if you ask me at this time next year, and if you don’t give me a chance to check the blog and reread this review, I will remember almost nothing about this book. I’ve felt this way about a lot of the contemporary novels I’ve read this year: Wolf in White Van, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Florence Gordon, Cambridge. This does not necessarily mean these books are bad; on the contrary, bad books are often memorable. The word for these books is “competent”: generally well written, equipped with the usual complement of compelling characters, yet doomed to enter my brain for only a short sojourn before leaving on the next train out. Is this my own increasing age refusing to retain the details of these books? Or am I just reading too much untested fiction? Maybe next year one of my goals will be to read more books that have been around for a generation or two without going out of print and see if I find these easier to remember.