Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cunningham's fourth novel, Specimen Days, is a beautiful, strange, risky, and uneven history of New York City's past and future. Dealing with immigration, the industrial revolution and its crushing, soul-sucking machinations, tourism, and the aftermath of 9-11, the novel is divided into three parts, and three genres: the ghost story, the neo-noir thriller, and science fiction.
In The Hours, Cunningham invoked the power and person Virginia Woolf; in Specimen Days, the muse is the ecstatic and prophetic American poet Walt Whitman, whose epic poem "Leaves of Grass" guides and inhabits a character in each story, for good or for ill.
The first episode, "In the Machine," is set in 1870s Manhattan, at the height of the industrial revolution, and focuses on Lucas, a 12-year-old boy who has lost his brother Simon in a factory accident. Small and misshapen, Lucas begins to hear the singsong voices of the dead within all machines. These voices and Whitman's words lead him to a heroic gesture of sacrifice for Catherine, the woman Simon was to marry.
"The Children's Crusade" is set in post 9-11 New York, where 38-year-old Cat works for the NYC police, fielding and flagging calls from people claiming responsibility for various acts of violence. The city is unnerved by a terrorist band randomly detonating bombs, and Cat tracks the suspects, who are young boys leaving "Leaves of Grass" clues.
"Like Beauty" is Manhattan 150 years in the future, when the tourism-conquered city has been overwhelmed by the extraterrestrial refugees of Nadia, the first planet that earth successfully contacted. Simon is an on-the-run, recalled robot equipped with a poetry chip who is going literally to meet his maker. He is guided by Catarene, a skilled and aging Nadian, who is four feet tall and lizard-ish.
Specimen Days is inherently more plot-driven than Cunningham's earlier works, and those who don't appreciate genre fiction may find themselves shaking their heads at the hardboiled detective dialogue, and sci-fi twists, but this novel, like Whitman, contains multitudes and is more than the sum of its parts.