Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham

Read: 6 May, 2009

There was a tall pile of them on the sale table, just $4.99 each. I’d never heard of the title, or the author of that matter, but I had my allowance in hand. This was why I had come – to experiment, to sample the books no one else had wanted. $4.99 is nothing, really, especially for a hardcover. So I grabbed a pile of books, anything that looks interesting. I blew my entire allowance. It doesn’t really matter. If just one or two of these books turn out to be gems, they will have enough value for the entire pile.

I’m not sure why I picked this one. I don’t think I even bothered to read the jacket. The cover is interesting and it says “by the author of The Hours.” Hadn’t I heard that title before? I was sure it was a movie I had seen, maybe even liked.

I’ve been chewing my way through the pile of books I’ve bought in that way, but months went by before I got to this one. In the meantime, the bookstore marked it down to $2, and then only $1. The pile, sans my copy, never seemed to get any smaller. For whatever reason, this is a novel that has failed to catch the public’s eye.

But I like the cover. I like the dandelion parachute ball, green and glowing. I would see it on my shelf and try to imagine what the story could be about. With a name like Specimen Days, it could be just about anything. Horror, maybe? I think I confused The Hours with The Others.

I had just finished Witches Abroad. Discworld novels are safe; I know what to expect when I crack the spine onto the first page. I was ready for something different, unexpected, adventurous.

So I picked the glowing green dandelion parachute ball with the black background. Why not?

Specimen Days is not a novel, no matter what the cover says. Specimen Days is a meditation, a thought experiment. It glides through experiences like a breeze, offering no explanations and no resolutions. To call itself a novel, it experiences the world through three characters: the child, the woman, and the man. Each of these receives a chapter, an age, and a genre. The book is at once historical fiction, detective story, and science fiction. Somehow, the whole is held together by an experience of Walt Whitman. I won’t try to explain – I can’t. You’ll just have to read it for yourself.

I’m not surprised that Specimen Days can now be purchased for only $1 on the book’s sale table. It isn’t bad, it’s just so experimental, different, and genre-defying. It’s an experience of beauty and thought that can be both marvellous and uncomfortable. It isn’t a casual read.

That being said, it was a wonderful experience and I feel enriched for having been seduced by that glowing green parachute ball. Read it, give it a chance, and let yourself experience the touch of the literary numinous.

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