Three Thrilling Tales, One Gorgeous Arc

Specimen Days, by Michael Cunningham. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $25.

Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days is an extraordinary book, as ambitious as it is generous; and the depth of its kindness, or grace, is to convey that it is we ourselves, the multitude, who are extraordinary, or might be. If that sounds dauntingly simple or complete, or dangerously close to religion in its epic totality; if you have sniffed the word “multitude” and got a scent of Walt Whitman, I cannot gainsay your expectations. But I promise you fun, marvels, adventure, love stories, plus the uninhibited exercise of a great natural writer and an inspired historian. And three novels in one. There is also, herein, a fantasia on New York, a symphony full of dread and delight, such as the city of recent years has cried out for.

So, let’s start with three in one and the nature of the historian. There are three books or movements here; you can call them novellas, if that’s what about 100 pages amounts to. I felt the word “treatment” coming to mind-as in “movie treatment,” or the administering of a treat, or even the thorough experience by ordeal, as in, “Boss, you want me to give him the treatment?” The mere condition of a common binding leaves us helplessly prone to find links, rhyming schemes and associations in the three.

The first story is a ghost story-or Dickens-called “In the Machine.” The setting is New York City in 1865 or thereabouts; the machine is the city and life, but it is also the ceaseless engine that Lucas, 12 years old, feeds with metal plates so that they can be stamped. This task is as dangerous as Lucas’ life is desperate. He tries to keep his parents fed on his earnings. His brother Simon has just died. It’s Simon’s job at the machine that now falls to Lucas, and in the same falling he becomes fond of the Catherine who was to marry Simon, though he does not see at first that Catherine is also a prostitute. Catherine is fond of Lucas, too, and she has learned to overlook the boy’s odd habit of suddenly uttering bits of Walt Whitman-things like “I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end. But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.”

“In the Machine” is handed down in tablet-like gravity, with awesome invocations of the huge city. There is the Park, not just a pleasant relaxation for citizens but a jungle to the imagination:

“The park was faintly lit near the gates, by the streetlamps of Fifty-ninth Street, but beyond that it rolled on into deep shadow. Here by the entrance were grass and the trunks of the nearest trees, which were small, newly planted. They might have been men transformed into trees, lifting their wooden arms, displaying the leaves that had burst forth from their slowed and altered flesh. Farther in, the grass went from bright green to deep jade, and the trunks of the remoter trees were pewter, then iron, then black. Beyond the jade-black grass and the black trees it was pure dark, as if the entrance to the park were a ring of forest that surrounded a lake of black, filled with the rustle of leaves and an unnameable, underlying sound that must have been insects and something else. Beyond the visible woods lay the sound of some limitless attention.”

Lucas buys a bowl, a thing he finds irresistible because of a meaning he cannot express. On the street he meets Walt Whitman himself, and the poet recognizes a child singing his song. Lucas wants to save Catherine without quite knowing what threatens her, so one day he lets his arm slide into the great machine he operates. His hand is chewed and flattened. Catherine hurries to the hospital and sits with him as the pain becomes him. She insists on attention in the wretched hospital; she elects that his hand be cut off-tomorrow gangrene will want the arm. And then she goes back through the streets, half carrying Lucas, until they come to this, a fire in the factory where Catherine should have been and would have perished:

“A woman appeared at a window, seven stories up.

“The woman stood in the window, holding to its frame. Her blue skirt billowed. The square of brilliant orange made of her a blue silhouette, fragile and precise. She was like a goddess of the fire, come to her platform to tell those gathered below what the fire meant, what it wanted of them. From so far away, her face was indistinct. She turned her head to look back into the room, as if someone had called to her. She was radiant and terrifying. She listened to something the fire told her.

“She jumped.”

Yes, you know what that refers to, and this is history in which narrative suspense mingles with causal explanation. Mr. Cunningham admits to having studied the great book, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, that appeared in 1998. But he knows that only imagination can credit a boy borne on wings by Whitman’s verse. So we are prepared for the second novella, “The Children’s Crusade,” in which the tone shifts from Dickens to CSI. Cat is a 38-year-old black police detective, and now the boy is a part of a strange family that is beginning a series of terrorist outrages. A boy, wearing a bomb, simply wants to hug a stranger and disappear.

This is set in today’s city, more or less, and most of the emblems and words laid down in the first novella will reappear. The family of infant terrorists lives in a building where Whitman’s words are written up on all the walls. And the boy makes wistful telephone calls to Cat, which could be pleas for rescue or wicked bait for his trap. The shift in genres is expert and cunning: Cat and her boyfriend even have small-talk interludes, like those fragments that give CSI cops “real” lives.

The tour de force comes last. “Like Beauty” begins in New York, but now the city is a cruel theme park for tourists. Simon is not a biological: He was made, and very well made-indeed, his inventor thinks that with just a little tinkering he could get the whole feeling trick, the “boo-hoo-hoo” thing. And Simon does have shy protective urges towards Catareen, a four-and-a-half-foot tall lizard, a refugee from Nadia (another planet). He even wonders if she might be “like beautiful.”

Here we are in sci-fi, a genre that Mr. Cunningham treats with enormous wit and just as much wild techno detail as suits him. Our America is worse for wear. New Jersey is a toxic wasteland and beyond lies a no-go land, still dangerous from fallout (there was a meltdown in Omaha or South Dakota-no one is sure). In the park, a little boy-full of macho energy and eternal infantilism-is called a “Tomcruise.” And yet, the city is still the fearsome slum of 1865 with just a few special effects-the murderous patrolling hoverpods, the liquid suits favored by Germans, and the “Christians” who have taken over the middle of the country as if by conquest.

What is much more to the point is that Mr. Cunningham has created a recurring parable or myth, in contexts rendered with such a high mix of literary skill and mischief that disbelief is not really available. These three stories are very moving, have no fear, and Walt Whitman is exactly as he may sound in this review-an amiable, wordy shaggy dog snuffling after his own tail. For just as there is an enthralling call to order here-a mystical longing for beauty and unity-what makes this the novel of its time, and of a New York ready to change its name to 9/11, is the wild and hilarious sense that all number games are like gambling: You’re a champ one minute and a chump the next.

So read it once and I promise you this: As you finish it, you will want to restart it, for now you’ll have all the clues and half-scents to make an arc of history. This is a transforming book, the lovely, tattered record of our time and place, and of our wish to prevail-if only as interesting lizards.

David Thomson is the author of The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (Knopf). He reviews books regularly for The Observer.