One moment, PLEASE
Pulitzer Prize-winner jams a lot of meaning into a little space
THE way we see this world in all its beauty and ugliness is a vast subject to ponder while reading The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize- and PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author of The Hours. Or, you could zero in on the superficial edict espoused by one of the book’s characters — that all everyone needs in life to be happy is the perfect pair of jeans. Cunningham, a senior lecturer of creative writing at Yale University, affords readers glimpses into the New York-centred lives of brothers Barrett and Tyler Meeks, and their circle of friends, in short windows of time that give a more-than-complete picture of their world.
It’s tempting to say there’s something Jamesian about Cunningham’s writing. Much significance lies in a few words and glances exchanged, or in a character’s point of view as they walk in a park or street. Cunningham used a similar technique in The Hours (made into the 2002 Oscar-winning film starring Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep), in which all the action took place in a single day in the life of three women affected by British modernist author Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway. In The Snow Queen, which will be released Tuesday, May 20, younger brother Barrett sees a strange light in the sky above Central Park one winter night while agonizing over a recent breakup with yet another callous lover. At the same time, his drugaddicted musician brother Tyler closes a window in the impoverished Bushwick-neighbourhood apartment he and his dying partner Beth share with Barrett, and feels something like a tiny sliver of glass lodge itself in his eye amid swirling snow. That moment becomes the book’s centrepiece, and is referred back to throughout. Much of the book unfolds in a day, with another large part devoted to significant revelations happening within 20 minutes of midnight one significant New Year’s Eve. New York is to Cunningham as Boston was to Henry James. The Meeks brothers move with intimate familiarity through the iconic city’s streets, caught at a moment where both question the direction their lives are taking. They are reaching middle age and can’t seem to find — or see — what they really want to achieve in life. Tyler feels caged, waiting for the love of his life to die, while his unsuccessful music career stagnates. Barrett yearns for a lover with whom he can truly share life and love beyond just empty sex. The action moves slowly, dreamlike: in bare moments, Cunningham reveals the characters’ many layers and deepest secrets. Capturing a lifetime in a paragraph is part of his brilliance: a young woman struggles to choose a necklace in Beth’s boutique where Barrett works. She’s getting married and says only, “His family is Italian.” From that Barrett anticipates her life in a moment, her indecisiveness over the baubles revealing her overall uncertainty: “The girl wants to walk out of the shop as the girl in this necklace — this talisman, this assertion. I chose this on my own, it has nothing to do with my fiancé.” Perceiving that he is free, regardless of his life achievements, is a long time coming for Tyler, who wonders how long he’s had that ice crystal lodged in his eye. There is, of course, more to this tale, just as there’s more to life than finding the perfect pair of jeans. But one major part of Cunningham’s mastery lies in rendering the many layers of life in a moment.
Once upon a time, Winnipeg writer and musician Christine Mazur studied American Romantic literature
and Henry James at the University of Manitoba.
Michael Cunningham’s latest packs few words and exchanged glances with plenty of weight.
The Snow Queen