One mo­ment, PLEASE

Pulitzer Prize-win­ner jams a lot of mean­ing into a lit­tle space

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

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

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