Dis­tracted and drift­ing through un­cer­tain lives

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kevin Ra­bal­ais

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

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