Monday, October 15, 2007

No So Fine A Specimen

Apologies for the absence. Work apart, have been busy completing reviews of Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero, Orhan Pamuk's Other Colours and M.G. Vassanji's The Assassin's Song; and at present working on Philip Roth's Exit Ghost, Roberto Bolano's Last Evenings on Earth and Ronnie Govender's Black Chin, White Chin. Will post them as and when the publications carry the reviews. Meanwhile, here's an edited version of an earlier review, one that appeared in The Times of India at a time when they actually had a books page.

SPECIMEN DAYS Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days is in much the same structural vein as The Hours -- only this time, the presiding deity is Walt Whitman. (The title, in fact, is taken from Whitman’s own collection of writings on the American Civil War.) However, while The Hours was evocative and unified, Specimen Days comes across as decidedly more tentative.

Each of the novel’s sections deals with the interaction between a young boy, a man and a woman. The first describes the travails of an Irish-American youth in a sinister, industrialising Manhattan of the last century; the second mimics a noir thriller, delineating a black woman detective’s attempt to curb a posse of suicide bombers in the near future; and the third is sci-fi schmaltz, dealing with the efforts of a semi-human personality to rise above his programming.

In each section, one of the characters is compelled by the urge to quote Whitmanesque stanzas, while the poet himself makes an appearance in the first part: “Here was his grey-white cascade of beard, here his broad-brimmed hat and the kerchief knotted at his neck”.

Though Cunningham’s prose is lustrous and lyrical, his attempts to bend alien genres to his needs in the last two sections don’t quite come off. That his characters are so divergent in attitude and circumstance is another reason that the novel doesn’t cohere. Cunningham’s theme -- the need for spontaneous human connection unaffected by outward circumstance -- thus isn’t established in a unified manner.

Worth your while? Though not as fine a specimen as one would have liked, it is, nevertheless, an attempt to seek an experimental manner of singing the body electric. In this age of creative conformity, that itself is no mean feat.

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