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Past, present and future

Man of 'The Hours' Michael Cunningham explores how machines have changed us.

June 17, 2005|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

New York — It has become a tenet of the religion of technology that the world is steadily shrinking. Metaphorically speaking, of course. The telegraph gave way to the radio, which gave way to television, and now the Internet brings us details of the far-flung human experience in the blink of an eye.

But novelist Michael Cunningham believes the prophets of technology have it wrong. The world isn't getting smaller, he says, it's getting larger and more complicated, with more people living in more places, each a separate path to different pasts and different futures. To get at the essence of those lives, a writer needs more tools than a single story, or a single time.

"We have never lived in a world quite this large before," Cunningham says, his rangy frame folded up in a coffee shop window near his Greenwich Village apartment. "I would argue that regional differences may be thinning out, but no one has ever been as conscious as we are about what's happening in the Congo at the moment it happens. It just slams our lives into some kind of perspective."

In his new genre-bending novel, "Specimen Days," Cunningham places three similar characters in three different times -- past, present and future -- and builds his stories around a real literary figure, Walt Whitman. The structure echoes his last novel, "The Hours," a reimagining of Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," which won the 1999 Pulitzer for fiction and a 2003 Oscar for Nicole Kidman's portrayal of Woolf.

But the similarities end there.

While suicide was a recurring element of "The Hours," in the new work Cunningham explores the human need for social and physical contact, the convergence of flesh and machinery, and the American experience of constant immigration -- creating a perpetual "other" in a society in which class matters even if we delude ourselves to think otherwise. It is an ambitious effort to capture the human constant in a world that in some ways may have outgrown traditional literature's ability to impose order on our comprehension of our surroundings -- the way Charles Dickens and Jane Austen did in the 1800s.

"One story, even if it involves a number of characters, isn't sufficiently resonant, isn't sufficiently metaphoric, the way it was in the 19th century," Cunningham says. "I'm just trying to tell the biggest stories I can, with the understanding that you can't possibly tell a story big enough to do justice to the worlds you know, let alone the worlds you don't know."

The world Cunningham knows now is New York, the setting for much of the new novel. Cunningham, 52, grew up in La Canada Flintridge but moved here in 1981 to see if life might be more interesting somewhere else. It was a different and cheaper city then, a place where a young writer -- or musician or artist -- could eke out a minimal living while trying to establish a career.

"I came as so many people do -- with no money and no prospects. It was a really great time," Cunningham says. "That was the end, at least for the foreseeable future, of young crackpots being able to live here on odd jobs in obscure neighborhoods. That's all gone."

Cunningham's first few books were well regarded by critics, but it was "The Hours" that established him as a national literary figure, earning him enough money to maintain two apartments in the Village -- one to live in and one to work in. The success was sudden, and significant, but where many literary figures might at least feign lament over the intrusion of fame on writing time, Cunningham reveled in it.

"I had been sitting by that phone for 20 years, and no one had called to say, 'Do you want to go to Rio? Do you want to go to Milan?' " Cunningham says. "I naturally said yes to everything, and I had a great time. But suddenly it was two years later, and I hadn't produced anything."

So he went back to work, pursuing an idea about writing a novel that would explore the coming of the machine age.

"My first impulse with the book was to write a genre story," Cunningham says. "I love genres. I read promiscuously and have always loved horror stories and science fiction stories. I wanted to try one of my own, but just doing a thriller or a science fiction story didn't feel right -- let's leave that to the experts. So I became more interested in telling a similar story three times in three different genres and see what might connect them."

The triple approach evolved as a sense of balance, he says. One story seemed too narrow. Two stories have "a deadly symmetry." Three stories struck him -- as it did in "The Hours" -- as a form with both heft and flexibility.

"It could be balanced or unbalanced," he says. "It can be an equilateral triangle, or it can be all over the place. I can't help but notice there's a Holy Trinity, there's three acts in a play. There is something about the number 3 that continues to turn up in my work, not by design -- I certainly didn't sit up and say I'm going to spend my career writing books that divide up in three parts."

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