Like his Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Hours," Michael Cunningham's new novel, "Specimen Days," is a trio of narratives juxtaposed in a way that makes 1+1+1 equal a whole lot more than three. In "The Hours," Cunningham cut up his stories (two set in the past, one in the present, each haunted in its own way by Virginia Woolf and "Mrs. Dalloway") and restitched them in a manner that evoked Woolf's kinetic writing. Here Cunningham hangs his panels side by side, three novellas of past, present and future unified by locale, character and, most grandly, moral vision. His setting is mostly New York City, particularly Lower Manhattan. Each section features the same trio of characters reincarnated at three points in time: the mid-19th century; today; and late in the 21st century, after a nuclear meltdown has left much of the middle part of the country uninhabitable.
There's Simon, an ironworks operator who becomes a futures trader and returns as a simulo, or artificial human; Catherine, a seamstress reimagined as Cat, a forensic psychologist, and then replaced by Catareen, an alien with skin as green and slick as a leaf; and finally Luke or Lucas, who transforms from a boy who hears ghosts to a child terrorist with a pipe bomb duct-taped to his chest to a born-again Christian who climbs aboard a spaceship to emigrate to a planet in another solar system. If this sounds extravagant, complicated and exciting, it is.
Cunningham connects his characters and their moments in time via the hovering spirit of Walt Whitman and "Leaves of Grass." Once you recognize the source, lines from the great American epic appear everywhere -- sort of like how, once you start looking for it, the spray-paint signature of a graffiti artist suddenly pops up all over town. A boy quotes Whitman rather than speaking for himself on the big subjects of love and death and the cosmos. A terroristic godmother has wallpapered every surface of her Rivington Street apartment with pages of the poem. An android has been programmed with it in order to introduce moral reasoning into his code. If in "The Hours" Cunningham borrowed Woolf's style and sensibility to create a sui generis work of art, here he's weaving with Whitman's actual words and, more subtly, his soul.
Part One, called "In the Machine," is a 19th century ghost story that at first will remind you of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" but actually owes as much to his equally unsettling, anti-capitalistic "In the Cage." It's about a boy whose brother has been killed in an industrial accident, eaten by the iron teeth of a machine he operates. Lucas takes over his brother's job in the ironworks and soon starts hearing Simon, as the section's title suggests, in the machine.
Cunningham's point, or one of his points, is that the world shifted for the worse with industrialization. The machine has consumed us and this was the beginning of the end. That's a valid but pessimistic point of view, and it doesn't fit perfectly with Whitman's sophisticated optimism and his belief in the future. In the same way, when Lucas quotes "Leaves of Grass," it sometimes feels forced and unnatural, even within the open boundaries of a supernatural story. The intellectualizing is too apparent; the novelist's prints smudge the scene. Yet these weak points hardly tarnish an otherwise powerful and complex dramatization of New York at the dawn of a great and terrible age. This section ends with a spectacular fire at a shirtwaist factory in the Village, where garment workers must choose between incineration or leaping to their deaths while the city watches from the sidewalk below. If that brings to mind the twin horrors of the Triangle garment factory blaze and 9/11, then you're ready to turn the page.
The novel's middle section, "The Children's Crusade," is Cunningham's most commanding performance and one of the best police thrillers I've ever read. It's about a forensic psychologist chasing a group of child suicide terrorists who are randomly hugging people on the streets and then blowing themselves up. The terrorists quote Whitman and work for someone named Walt. Cat can stop the terror and save one of these children only by making sense of "Leaves of Grass." Here Cunningham's use of Whitman's poetry feels more organic to the story and less like a literary device. It serves as a source of natural clues, as well as emotional insight, in a mystery so engrossing and poignant that you'll wish that Cat was a recurring character in a series you could buy the new installment of each summer.