From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ‘The Hours’ comes a new thrilling and thought-provoking masterpiece.
Specimen Days is a novel made up of three linked visionary narratives about the relationship between man and machine. The first narrative, a ghost story set at the height of the Industrial Revolution, tells the story of man-eating machines. An ecstatic boy, barely embodied in the physical world, speaks in the voice of the great visionary poet Walt Whitman. He works at an oppressive factory connected to the making of a mysterious substance with some universal function and on which the world's economy somehow depends. The slight boy can barely operate the massive machine which speaks to him in the voice of his devoured brother. A woman who was to have married the brother is now the object of obsessive interest by the boy. In a city in which all are mastered by the machine, the boy is convinced that the woman must be saved before she too is devoured.
This grisly but ultimately transformative story establishes three main characters who will appear, reincarnated, in the other two sections of this startling modern novel. The boy, the man and the woman are each in search of some sort of transcendence as is made manifest by the recurrence of the words of Whitman ('It avails not, neither distance nor place…I am with you, and know how it is'). In part two, a noir thriller set in the early years of our current century, the city is at threat from maniacal bombers, while the third and last part plays with the sci-fi genre, taking our characters centuries into the future. The man who was devoured by a machine in part one is now literally a machine – a robot who becomes fully human before our eyes. The woman is a refugee from another part of the universe, a warrior in her native land but a servant on this planet.
Specimen Days is a genre-bending, haunting ode to life itself – a work of surpassing power and beauty by one of the most original and daring writers at work today.
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From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ‘The Hours’ and new novel ‘The Snow Queen’, time, technology and love are the central concerns of a provocative novel that calls to mind David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’.
Lucas, Catherine, Simon: three characters meet time and again in the three linked narratives that form ‘Specimen Days’. The first, a science fiction of the past, tells of a boy whose brother was ‘devoured’ by the machine he operated. The second is a noirish thriller set in our century, as a police psychologist attempts to track down a group of terrorists. And the third and final strand accompanies two strange beings into the future.
A novel of connecting and reconnecting, inspired by the writings of the great visionary poet Walt Whitman, ‘Specimen Days’ is a genre-bending, haunting ode to life itself – a work of surpassing power and beauty by one of the most original and daring writers at work today.Review:
It's hard to overestimate the impression made by Michael Cunningham's The Hours; this was literary fiction of a rare order, detailing the inner lives of its female protagonists with sympathy and understanding. Now we have Specimen Days, and this has to be counted among the most eagerly anticipated novels in recent years, such is the reputation of the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist has acquired in a relatively short time. And if Specimen Days does not immediately exert the grip of its predecessor, this is due to no failure of technique. Cunningham knows exactly what he is doing, and his slow, penetrating accretion of detail ultimately pays off in ways that are richly satisfying.
The various sections of the novel describe the same group of protagonists: a young boy, a young woman and an older man. But the treatment of these characters is strikingly varied from section to section, and the ambitions of the novel are jaw dropping. In the Machine is set during the industrial revolution, and balances the carefully examined pathology of its characters against supernatural elements. We are then taken to the early 21st century in The Children's Crusade which has a far grittier tone, with a terrorist group setting off bombs at random throughout the city. Finally, we are plunged 150 years into the future, when the city of New York is struggling to deal with the host of refugees from a planet that astronauts have reached.
All of these widely disparate narratives are united by the telling presence of the poet Walt Whitman, who acts as an anchor for the reader in a narrative that disorients as much as it stimulates. Not everyone will be able to accept the massive reach of Cunningham's novel, and the wrench between different time periods is certainly more shocking than that in The Hours. But for those willing to accept the new and challenging, Specimen Days is a masterful and visceral read. --Barry Forshaw
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