Monday, March 19, 2012

SPECIMEN DAYS by Michael Cunningham

The original Specimen Days is an essay collection by Walt Whitman in which he reflects on wounded and dying soldiers, among other things, during the Civil War.  I have not read it, nor have I read his poetry collection, Leaves of Grass.  No matter.  This novel contains enough Whitman quotations to give the reader a pretty good idea of what he was about.  My take is that life is a cycle, and death is one phase of that cycle, in which our bodies return to the earth to contribute to the growth of new life, both plant and animal.  Cunningham's novel has 3 parts, each of which could stand alone as a novella.  The character names are roughly the same but the time periods are hundreds of years apart.  Are these intended to be reincarnations?  I'm not sure, but the characters' personalities are not necessarily similar from one incarnation to the next.  Lucas/Luke is a child in all 3 sections, with afflictions of some sort.  In the second section, Luke is actually dead, but another child (perhaps an extra incarnation?) takes his place and his name.  In the first section, it is Simon who has already died, and in the third section, he is half cadaver, half machine.  In the first book, the machines are the villains of the Industrial Revolution, whereas in the third, Simon the cyborg develops his own emotional and moral core.  What does all this mean?  That we as humans are becoming more like machines, and the machines are becoming more human?  And what is the point of naming the two male characters for two of Jesus's disciples?  I have no idea.  The female character is Catherine (a mill worker and occasional prostitute), then Cat (a forensic psychologist), and finally Catereen (a green reptile-like alien from the planet Nadia).  All three sections end with someone starting over in life—another reincarnation, of a sort.  The third section, however, is probably the most telling.  One being dies and replenishes the earth, one surrenders an opportunity for an improved life in order to soothe the passing of another, and one bolts toward another planet and the great unknown.  In truth, all three characters are headed to an unknown future, but one thing is certain: the cycle of life will continue.

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