Specimen Days is made of three different but interconnected stories, set at different periods in time. In each one of them, the three same characters, a young man, a young woman and a boy, are the main protagonists but are related and interact in different ways. The link between these stories is Leaves of Grass, the epic poem by Walt Whitman, who inspired Michael Cunningham’s visions translated into stories.

In the first one, “In the machine” (as in “Ghost in…), set in New York during the industrial revolution, Lucas has just lost his older brother Simon, killed by a factory machine. He takes his place working the machine, and also looks after Catherine, who was betrothed to Simon, and whom he is in love with. Soon, he starts to believe that the noise from the machines is the voices of the dead. He starts to worry about Catherine, who works in another factory as a seamstress, thinking that Simon might want to take her with him in death. Lucas reads from Leaves of Grass and sentences from the book comes to him at often inopportune moments. One day, he even has an encounter with the poet himself…

“The Children’s Crusade” takes place in a post 9/11 New York. Cat, a forensic psychologist, is getting calls from lunatics who threaten to commit terrorist acts. Her job is to distinguish between the harmless and the ones who really mean it. But this time, she has made an error of judgement. She had pegged the last boy who called her to threaten to blow somebody up as a lonely kid playing too many video games in his room, and the boy ended up blowing himself and a man up. When another kid calls with similar claims, she is worried by the implications of kids acting as terrorists and wonders when it will stop. The kids have both been raised by a woman who fed them with Whitman’s poetry…

In a far away future, extra-terrestrials called Nadians have left their planet in the hope of finding a better world. There are used on earth as nannies or street cleaners. Simon is a cyborg, of a series doomed to destruction because of their flaws. But Simon has avoided being caught so far. He works in New York, which has become a giant theme park, and, as a job, manhandles people in search of a thrill in Central Park. When he meets Catareen, a Nadian nanny, they decide to escape to Denver, where Simon knows he must be on a precise date, because the information has been programmed in his circuits by his maker. As has been Leaves of Grass, that Simon more and more often quotes during normal conversations.

According to Michael Cunningham, Walt Whitman is America’s bard , “a vigorous, enraptured artist whose appetite for the world and everything in it included an intimate acquaintance not only with the world’s capacity to delight us but with its manifolds ways of deluding, disappointing, and degrading us as well.” He only wrote one book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, which he extended and revised all his life, so that there are nine versions of it. I haven’t read Walt Whitman, and as Michael Cunningham wrote in his essay America’s Bard, he doesn’t expect many of his readers to have read him. So having read Leaves of Grass is not a prerequisite for enjoying Specimen Days. Although I cannot judge the relevance of the visions Cunningham summoned from reading Leaves of Grass (and even if I had read it myself, I still wouldn’t be entitled to judge), I enjoyed this ambitious novel, which gives us a pretty grim image of the future of society, and shows the capacity of human beings for invention, love and creativity, but also the darker side of it, manifested in exploitation of others, hatred and destruction. It also deals with mortality and eternity, and the connections between nature and man:

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it
and ceas’d the moment life appear’d

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses
And to die is different from what one supposed, and luckier

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

In many ways, Specimen Days reminded me of Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, both visionary and daring novels…

Rating: 4,5/5