Stories that combine a number of different narratives can sometimes be a little challenging. Some critics will consider it gimmicky. Me, I like the challenge of integrating them, figuring out how the creator intended them to coalesce into a single message.
The case with Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days starts to emerge with the second narrative, "The Children's Crusade." At first it seems as if "Crusade" is about as different from "In the Machine," the narrative that precedes it, as you can get. "Machine" is set in the nineteenth century, while "Crusade" is in the twenty-first. The third and final narrative, "Like Beauty," is set in the indeterminate future. Names and relationships become a pattern, despite vast differences otherwise, plus the recurring appearance of a peculiar bowl. The unifying element is a character named Simon whose life experience always ends up rejecting an emerging paradigm shift, while characters with variations on the names Lucas and Catherine struggle less successfully around him.
"Machine" is Cunningham's least successful literary effort in the story. It's very much like someone's basic impression of an M. Night Shyamalan film, or perhaps an impression of what literature was like in the story's given time period. The main character is Lucas, Simon's younger brother, who's struggling in the aftermath of Simon's death, and clinging to the relationships his brother left behind, the job that killed him and the woman he was going to marry. Lucas has a simplistic view of the world, an impressionistic one, not so much innocent as naive. Like each of the narratives he has a tenuous connection to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, unconsciously quoting it just as naturally as speaking, if not moreso, his own thoughts. Lucas has no idea how to cope, and ends up rebelling against what his life is becoming by sacrificing himself to the machines that are just beginning to dominate life. The strange thing, like the basic perception of a Shyamalan film, is that Lucas ends up saving Catherine, interpreting a sequence of events as something his brother began, by preventing her from being at work when a fire erupts there, killing everyone else.
"Crusade" features Simon as the lover of Cat, a police psychologist who answers phones for strange callers either explaining their own disturbing thoughts or taking credit for the latest crisis. It's set in the aftermath of 9/11, and features a series of boy bombers, one of whom takes a personal interest in Cat, eventually subsuming the identity of her late son Luke. Simon is depicted as out of Cat's league, in the relationship only to sow wild oats and preparing to move onto the life that's been waiting for him. The Whitman connection is a little more tenuous this time, a background element of the cult conspiracy behind the suicide terrorists Cat finds herself connected to, trying to figure out if there's even a way to stop them, impressionable young boys corrupted into becoming born killers. Part of Cunningham's overall message seems to be a cynical reaction to the direction humanity is going, part environmentalism and part reaction against environmentalism, far less on the nose than T.C. Boyle's A Friend of the Earth but when you think about it maybe less than you'd think.
"Beauty" features Simon most directly, at least this narrative's version of him, a synthetic life-form just trying to make his way in the world when he becomes fascinated by an alien named Catareen, whom he ends up running away with. In its basic element "Beauty" is the culmination of the three narratives as they progress efforts to see what follows after a big decision. "Machine" ends after Lucas makes the decision to follow through on his convictions. "Crusade" follows Cat as she discovers that her convictions might have been mistaken. "Beauty" is charitable enough for Simon to see his journey to one conclusion and yet another suggestion that it's just beginning. Three narratives, one story, and Cunningham spends all of it on a single meditation.
The author previously based The Hours on a similar story pivoted around Virginia Woolf, which was made into a movie that won Nicole Kidman an Oscar. He also wrote A Home at the End of the World, which was also made into a movie. I figured I should read at least one thing by him, and I decided on Specimen Days because it hadn't been adapted for the screen, perhaps because of the aliens in "Beauty," though Cloud Atlas may have in several ways made any objections less likely to dissuade Hollywood from completing the Cunningham set. (He does have other books besides these.)
Figuring out what Cunningham is trying to do has less to do with Whitman than you'd think, but the constant meditations from his poetry does tend to give the impression that all of it has a great deal more resonance than it does. When you figure out that all of it pivots around the Simon figure, even though he's only the lead in one of the three, unlocks the riddle easily enough. It also elevates each of the narratives to the same level. Cunningham has no real insight into Lucas in "Machine," substituting a lack of answers with a basic simplicity that only makes it easier to reach his conclusions. Even Cat in "Crusade," who throughout the narrative has a lot more conviction and direction than in the conclusion, gets away from him for convenience's sake, although again it's the insight from the Simon character that makes it work. Simon himself, because he's the lead, allows Cunningham to focus, figure out where the Lucas and Catherine figures end in a straight interpretation of the basic Simon narrative. It's funny, because neither ultimately matter to him, which is not what you might think from "Machine" or "Crusade," although in the latter it's a strong suggestion and in the former it's speculation, because in that one, of course, Simon is dead from the start.
As a whole, Specimen Days is fascinating, which is much the point, and needs to be, and why Cunningham spends all of it using the same elements. In a book like Vladimir Sorokin's Ice Trilogy, individual narratives shifts along a timeline and takes new looks at the same elements, too, but in order to see where it all leads. "Machine," "Crusade," and "Beauty" are not really connected. They could be read individually and you need not even trouble yourself over Cunningham's overriding goals. Yet if you do, you'll end up with something that's greater than the sum of its parts, fascinating as they may be. Whatever you think Whitman was trying to do with his poetry, or what you think of Whitman himself, Cunningham suggests that it's transcendent, and it's that quality he attempts to convey in this book.