Distracted and drifting through uncertain lives
The Snow Queen
By Michael Cunningham Fourth Estate, 256pp, $27.99 IN an essay on Dostoevsky, Marcel Proust writes that all of the Russian novelist’s books could have been titled Crime and Punishment.
Writers tend to probe their obsessions, and we read their latest work to see what new light they cast on those preoccupations. Aware of the graceful manner in which he explores inner lives, we approach a new Michael Cunningham novel for a better understanding of the way we live now. Ever attentive to how we pass our time — and how our lives unfold as we either avoid or attempt to fully inhabit them — all of Cunningham’s novels could bear the title of his 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner The Hours.
Cunningham never hides his influences. The Hours takes Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as its starting point. Specimen Days (2005) acknowledges its debt to Walt Whitman. The title and epigraph of his latest, The Snow Queen, comes from Hans Christian Andersen.
Rather than a retelling, however, Andersen’s fairy tale serves as a departure point for Cun-
May 10-11, 2014 ningham to reflect a contemporary malaise. But while the novel bears his trademark concerns, it ultimately fails to attain the breadth of previous work such as A Home at the End of the World (1990) or the prodigious Flesh and Blood (1995).
The magic mirror that distorts all it reflects in Andersen’s The Snow Queen acts as one impetus in Cunningham’s novel. Another is his impulse to describe the trials of ordinary contemporary life. Shortly after being “mauled, once again, by love”, Barrett Meeks sees a vision, pale and translucent light, in the sky above Manhattan’s Central Park. Barrett believes the sky has opened to reflect his soul.
As Cunningham writes: “The question arises: Who was he last night? Has he in fact been altered in some subtle way, or has he simply been rendered more conscious of the particulars of this own ongoing condition? It’s a hard one to answer.” It’s also a difficult one for the reader to follow and comprehend, but this seems to be Cunningham’s purpose, for The Snow Queen examines what it means to misunderstand our lives and to be caught somewhere in between.
This includes the lethargy of early 21stcentury life for those — no longer young, but not yet middle-aged — in between and frustrated at the collapse of their plans. When the novel begins, in 2004, they are adrift — like the US itself in that election year — uncertain how to live in the world they have inherited.
Set in a not-yet-gentrified New York neighbourhood, The Snow Queen begins on the eve of George W. Bush’s re-election. Cunningham’s liberal-minded characters refuse to believe the incumbent will remain in charge. They are also aware of their own powerlessness to do anything about it.
Barrett, a Yale graduate, now works in a high-end vintage shop. His brother, Tyler, is a stalled musician. While he cares for Beth, his dying girlfriend, Tyler resumes a drug habit. All three live together in an apartment and neighbourhood they can’t wait to leave. Still, occasionally, “there’s a gaunt beauty summoned by the pre-dawn light; a sense of compromised but still-living hope … Here’s a fall of new snow, serious snow, immaculate, with its hint of benediction, as if some company that delivers hush and accord to the better neighbourhoods had gotten the wrong address.”
In his next paragraph, Cunningham lays out what seems to be the goal of his novel: “If you live in certain places, in a certain way, you’d better learn to praise the small felicities.” It’s something the novel achieves in a string of individual moments that ultimately fail to construct a fulfilling whole.
While Barrett explores the meaning of what the night sky has tried to tell him, and Beth convalesces, Tyler lays out his short-term goals: “He will get them out of this grim apartment, sing ferociously into the heart of the world, find an agent, stitch it all together, soak beans for a cassoulet, get Beth to chemo on time, do less coke and cut out the Dilaudid entirely, finally finish reading The Scarlet and the Black.”
Style plays a key role in Cunningham’s work. His prose in The Snow Queen is elegant and replete with clauses and parenthetical asides, which help reflect his characters’ meandering. This also distances the reader from the very problems these characters face. Distracted and drifting through their uncertain lives, they are almost unbearably human in their faults.
Cunningham offers a reflection, at times bitter but with a glimmer of hope, of the world they have made. As at the end of the fairy tale, the world is as they have always known it, while they are irrevocably, but never finally, changed.
Kevin Rabalais is a novelist and critic.
Modern malaise: Michael Cunningham