Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham

Replicants, aliens and a perfect white bowl
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The Independent Culture

Echoing David Mitchell, Cunningham tackles three distinct genres: 19th-century ghost story, contemporary thriller and futuristic sci-fi. The effects of industrialisation ("In the Machine"), terrorism ("The Children's Crusade") and space exploration ("Like Beauty") are his themes. How would Whitman have celebrated each of these distortions of the American dream's incitement to individualism and the pursuit of happiness?

With a nod to Whitman's notion of cyclical existence, the trio of main characters - a man, an older woman and a disabled child - reincarnate in each tale. "In The Machine" sees a physically deformed 13-year-old taking on his dead brother's factory job. Lucas loves Catherine, the dead Simon's fiancée, and worries that his sibling will claim her back. In the eerily topical "The Children's Crusade", black police psychologist Cat feels haunted by her dead son Luke. She balances her affair with the white, younger Simon, with her job, tracking the child suicide-bombers who phone her before detonating. Simon, the "simulo" (think replicant) of the final section, goes on the run with Catareen, a lizard-like female alien with bright orange eyes. In the post-meltdown world (possibly the result of the "Children's Crusade"), their companion is Luke, a 12-year-old casualty of his mother's drug-taking while pregnant.

In this thought-provoking but uneven work, the alert reader will spot plenty of repeated details - the date 21 June; the perfect white bowl. Cunningham refracts images, plays with resonances. Lucas hears his brother's ghost singing through the clamps and levers at the factory. Men are like machines, "mechanisms of wish and need", so in "Like Beauty", the ghost in the machine gets turned inside out, with a life of its own as a humanoid. Simon - machine turned man - survives as a sort of living ghost.

Women leap blazing to their deaths in a factory fire in the first story - an image conjuring up 9/11. In "The Children's Crusade", the woman calling herself "Walt Whitman" and instructing the child bombers believes it's time to start over. Although America has everything and more, there's still pollution, drug-abuse, murder. "Would you say this is working out?" she asks chillingly. "Does this seem to you like a story that wants to continue?" By the time we get to "Like Beauty", New York has metamorphosed into a sort of violent theme park and the rest of America is inhabited by those who didn't escape the apocalypse.

Specimen Days isn't always convincing but, like Leaves of Grass before it, makes us look again. Whitman is the poet of celebration. There may seem little to celebrate here, yet Cunningham's last image is one of hope - Simon, "flesh and wiring, a series of microchips" astride a horse, the new pioneer riding into his future.