Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Michael Cunningham: Rockstar

Although I read it a few weeks ago, I haven't really bothered yet to write up a review for Michael Cunningham's newest book, Specimen Days. Partly because there's already been an explosion of national reviews and I didn't see the need to promote a book already getting so much attention. Also partly because I didn't feel like I had anything unique to add to the conversation about Mr. Cunningham's work.

But it's nagged at me, it's picked at me. It's blend of three different genres (gothic tale, suspense/thriller, and science fiction) with strokes of character and theme usually found in more literary material make it a book that I would normally talk about if it wasn't so high profile. It, quite frankly, just wouldn't let me move on to something else.

I won't belabor the more obvious points of the book that you can easily find in the numerous other writeups on Specimen Days. Like his mega-hit The Hours, this new book stretches across generations, but with more tenuous links between the three different sections. Names are reused, characters resemble physically but take on different personas, and there's this weird little bowl that keeps popping into the story in different ways. And of course there's Walt Whitman; his poetry plays a big part in all three of the stories.

Yesterday it finally hit me what Cunningham's doing, at least with one particular technique. After leaving the metro station last night, I strapped on my walkman and started out on the walk to my car about a half mile away. I flipped through a few radio stations, skipping over bumble gum oldies and inauthentic modern rock ballads, finally landing on a classic rock station playing a Jimi Hendrix version of the old blues song "Cross Cut Saw". It's a song I know well, but I've never heard the Hendrix version. Hearing him rip through the melody in his frenetic, distorted way was a marvelous experience.

There's a concept in music theory called the tonic. It's occurs when a lead instrument solos, diverging in unique and interesting ways from the basic melody of the song. The tonic is the return, sometimes brief sometimes long, to the main melody of the piece of music. The idea is that the tonic grouds the solo, lends it some structure, and gives the listener something to latch onto while the musician plays around. It's a very central idea behind both blues and jazz. Frank Zappa was amazing at it, A Perfect Circle showed some promise on their eMotive album. But few are as good at it as Jimi Hendrix.

Now I have no idea if Cunningham had the idea of a tonic in mind when he wrote his book. The connection, to me anyway, seems obvious. Wanting to diverge into other styles and types of content, he created a clever way to connect these wildly different sections. Working in those little connections might make it that much more palatable for the general reader, and will certainly please any student using Cunningham's work for an English paper.

So if you're reading Specimen Days and you're tripping over some of the connections, just remember. His words are notes, his characters rhythm, his themes melody. And he's just rockin' out.


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