Specimen Days A Novel

Michael Cunningham




Trade Paperback

352 Pages


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A Boston Globe Best Book of the Year
A Washington Post Best Book of the Year
A Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year

In each section of Michael Cunningham's novel, his first since The Hours, we encounter the same group of characters: a young boy, a man, and a woman. "In the Machine" is a ghost story that takes place at the height of the industrial revolution as human beings confront the alienating realities of the new machine age. "The Children's Crusade," set in the early twenty-first century, plays with the conventions of the noir thriller as it tracks the pursuit of a terrorist band that is detonating bombs, seemingly at random, around the city. The third part, "Like Beauty," evokes a New York 150 years into the future, when the city is all but overwhelmed by refugees from the first inhabited planet to be contacted by the people of Earth.

Presiding over each episode of this interrelated whole is the prophetic figure of the poet Walt Whitman, who promised his future readers, "It avails not, neither time or place . . . I am with you, and know how it is." Specimen Days is a genre-bending, haunting, and transformative ode to life in our greatest city, and a meditation on the direction and meaning of America's destiny. It is a work of surpassing power and beauty by one of the most original and daring writers at work today.


Praise for Specimen Days

"These three novellas give loose rein to his playful genius for description and rollicking plot."—Ethan Canin, The Washington Post Book Review

"It is his unique moral vision that successfully hinges three distinct narrative panels into a triptych of unified beauty. It's what raises his individual stories out of their genres into the glorious realm of art . . . Big, haunting, beautiful."—Los Angeles Times Book Review

"[Specimen Days] is a love song of a novel, rich and melancholy and overflowing with smartness."—The Boston Globe

"In his first novel since The Hours, Michael Cunningham explores the unsettling effects of the industrial age. Splendid prose in a mesmerizing tale that tweaks our standard measures of time."—Chicago Tribune

"Clearly and often compellingly the work of a gifted storyteller with an ambitious mind and a lyrical writing style."—San Francisco Chronicle

"An extraordinary book, as ambitious as it is generous . . . I promise you fun, marvels, adventure, love stories, plus the uninhibited exercise of a great natural writer and an inspired historian. . . . This is a transforming book, the lovely, tattered record of our time and place, and of our wish to prevail."—David Thomson, The New York Observer

"Stunning . . . It is a rich reading experience, going from the brutal factory scenes to the thriller of the middle section, and then on to the brave new world of the final section. Cunningham has made something substantively and stylistically bold out of these stories, keeping his many fires stoked and pulling the parts together as a brilliant whole."—The Seattle Times

"Cunningham's experimentation with the genres brings his prose to new energy . . . [It] is exactly the kind of bold experiment that a novelist who takes his art seriously ought to make."—New York magazine

"Cunningham is a canny propagandist for the importance of imaginative literature . . . [He] crosses genres elegantly."—The Baltimore Sun

"An appealing and inventive fiction that indicates the range of as well as future possibilities for the novel . . . Cunningham's innovative triptych structure compels the reader, even after the novel is finished, to look for connections and patterns among the three strands . . . The intertextual dialogue between the three novellas and the sheer invention of the project should provide sufficient rewards for any reader."—The News & Observer (Raleigh)

"Michael Cunningham's new novel is extraordinary. It is strange and unusual and awkward to describe. It is also brilliant, as good as if not better than his stunning previous novel, The Hours . . . Specimen Days is a magnificent novel."—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Quite simply and even more impressively than in The Hours, Cunningham writes like an angel . . . Read this magical, spellbinding novel."—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Cunningham's exquisite prose transcends the genres he has set for himself . . . It is easy to imagine [Whitman] beaming down his approval at Cunningham's strong-armed embrace of all that is America, as he beautifully articulates the frustrations of modern life . . . Like Whitman, Cunningham too sings America, in all its grime and glory . . . and Specimen Days is a book of wonders."—The Times Picayune (New Orleans)

"This is the most intriguing, stimulating, and artistically satisfying novel I've read in years . . . Cunningham takes material that in other hands might be titillating science fiction and masterfully turns it into heartfelt, poignant, and engaging human drama."—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Cunningham's latest novel—actually, three novellas—is breathtaking . . . Impossible to put down, so dazzling is its prose, so complex are the ideas it wrestles with, and so generous is its vantage point . . . It is, in three daring swoops, a poetic mediation on what it means to be human, a cautionary tale about the separation of progress from morality, and an eloquent call to rebellion against the powers that be. Walt Whitman, in all of his bearded amplitude, must be smiling."—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Brilliantly conceived, empathic, darkly humorous, and gorgeously rendered, Cunningham's galvanizing novel about the quest for justice and freedom, the parameters of the soul, the hunger for beauty, and the fluid interface between the natural and the engineered is a genuine literary event. Y.A.: The magnetic characters and edgy action will carry teens through."—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

"Engaging Walt Whitman as his muse (and borrowing the name of Whitman's 1882 autobiography for his title), Cunningham weaves a captivating, strange, and extravagant novel of human progress and social decline. Like his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours, the novel tells three stories separated in time. But here, the stage is the same (the 'glittering, blighted' city of Manhattan), the actors mirror each other (a deformed, Whitman-quoting boy, Luke, is a terrorist in one story and a teenage prophet in another; a world-weary woman, Catherine, is a would-be bride and an alien; and a handsome young man, Simon, is a ghost, a business man, and an artificial human) and weighty themes (of love and fear, loss and connection, violence and poetry) reverberate with increasing power. 'In the Machine,' set during the Industrial Revolution, tells the story of 12-year-old Luke as he falls in love with his dead brother's girlfriend, Catherine, and becomes convinced that the ghost of his brother, Simon, lives inside the iron works machine that killed him. The suspenseful 'The Children's Crusade' explores love and maternal instinct via a thrilleresque plot, as Cat, a black forensic psychologist, draws away from her rich, white and younger lover, Simon, and toward a spooky, deformed boy who's also a member of a global network committed to random acts of terror. And in 'Like Beauty,' Simon, a 'simulo', Catareen, a lizard-like alien, and Luke, an adolescent prophet, strike out for a new life in a postapocalyptic world. With its narrative leaps and self-conscious flights into the transcendent, Cunningham's fourth novel sometimes seems ready to collapse under the weight of its lavishness and ambition—but thrillingly, it never does. This is daring, memorable fiction."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Walt said that the dead turned into grass, but there was no grass where they'd buried Simon. He was with the other Irish on the far side of the river, where it was only dirt and gravel and names on stones.


Read the full excerpt



  • Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham--Audiobook Excerpt

    Listen to this audiobook excerpt from Michael Cunningham's novel Specimen Days, narrated by Tony Award-winning actor Alan Cumming. In each section of Michael Cunningham's bold novel, his first since the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours, we encounter the same group of characters: a young boy, a man, and a woman. "In the Machine" is a ghost story that takes place at the height of the industrial revolution as human beings confront the alienating realities of the new machine age.



  • Michael Cunningham

  • Michael Cunningham was raised in Los Angeles and lives in New York City. He is the bestselling author of The Hours, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award and was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film; A Home at the End of the World; Laws for Creations; Specimen Days; Flesh and Blood; and By Nightfall. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writer's Award. He is a Professor at Brooklyn College for the M.F.A program.

  • Michael Cunningham © Richard Phibbs
    Michael Cunningham




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