Book World: Michael Cunningham’s heavenly style rules in ‘The Snow Queen’

Jesus warned that only “a wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign,” but what if a miraculous sign flashes over your head? What are you supposed to do — look away?

That’s the question confounding Barrett Meeks, the protagonist of Michael Cunningham’s contemplative new novel, “The Snow Queen.” Barrett isn’t looking for divine reassurance as he wanders through Central Park. He’s just trying not to feel discouraged about his latest breakup — by text message (ouch). And yet there it is: “a celestial light . . . an apparition . . . translucent, a swatch of veil, star-high, no, lower than the stars, but high, higher than a spaceship hovering above the treetops.”

Cunningham’s premise is almost as old as God, who once confronted Moses in the form of a burning bush. But nowadays such annunciations tap on the door of a culture deeply skeptical of divine theatrics. Signs and wonders are simply misinterpreted natural phenomena or symptoms of psychological illness, aren’t they? Novelists Alan Lightman and Joshua Max Feldman, among others, have explored the way intimations of spirituality can disrupt the equilibrium of our rational world, but such considerations are rare. As Carlene Bauer writes in the current issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, “The literary novel, current American edition, does not seem to be where we go to work out our relation to the numinous.”

“The Snow Queen” takes its title from one of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, which might suggest Cunningham’s regard for the substance of things not seen. And yet a spirit of agnosticism — or at least pitiful tolerance — allows the mystery of what Barrett saw to float over this story. Like any intelligent 21st-century man, Barrett knows all about satellites and cortical migraines and the aurora borealis, but he also knows what he felt in Central Park: “As surely as he was looking up at the light, the light was looking back down at him. No. Not looking. Apprehending. . . . He felt the light’s attention.”

Cunningham has created a small group of sophisticated New Yorkers thirsty for a miracle. Barrett’s latest humiliating breakup arrives as he’s climbing down the ladder of success. Though allegedly brilliant, he has been reduced to selling clothing and living with his brother, Tyler, in a burned-out neighborhood where “even the criminals have lost their ambition.” Tyler, meanwhile, is a musician — a bartender, really — who’s determined to give up cocaine after just one more hit. He’s rushing to write the perfect wedding song for his fiancee, Beth, who’s dying of cancer. More depressing: George W. Bush is about to be reelected.


“The Snow Queen” by Michael Cunningham (FSG)

Who’s to say that God wouldn’t give this sad little family a “hint of benediction”? After all, “revelation is offered only to those too poor and lowly to be considered candidates.” Barrett sees it in the sky. Tyler feels it one morning while standing naked at the window looking down on the street:

“Outside, the snow shifts with a shift in the wind, and it seems as if some benign force, some vast invisible watcher, has known what Tyler wanted, the moment before he knew it himself — a sudden animation, a change, the gentle steady snowfall taken up and turned into fluttering sheets, an airy map of the wind currents; and yes — are you ready, Tyler? — it’s time to release the pigeons, five of them, from the liquor store roof, time to set them aflight and then (are you watching?) turn them, silvered by earthly light, counter to the windblown flakes, sail them effortlessly west into the agitated air that’s blowing the snow toward the East River (where barges will be plowing, whitened like ships of ice, through the choppy water); and yes, right, a moment later it’s time to turn the streetlights off and, simultaneously, bring a truck around the corner of Rock Street, its headlights still on and its flat silver top blinking little warning lights, garnet and ruby, that’s perfect, that’s amazing, thank you.”

Regardless of your theological position on signs and wonders, that voice, Cunningham’s inimitable style, is the real miracle of “The Snow Queen.” Sentence by sentence — and that’s just one of them above — he moves across the surface of these pages like some suave, literary god. Behold how he swoops in and out of Tyler’s point of view, breaks the fourth wall, drops ironical quips, mocks and comforts in the same phrase.

It’s remarkable, yes, but is it enough to offer salvation to this languid plot? Like good Calvinists, readers will have to take that on faith. The vicissitudes of Barrett’s love life and the high-stakes fluctuations of Beth’s health offer a little movement, but Cunningham seems determined to make sure that every momentous action takes place between the chapters rather than during them. Again and again, we’re let in only after the drama is over.

Such reservations sound sacrilegious given Cunningham’s lovely style and flashes of psychological discernment. He writes so wisely about the cruel taunting of remission and the way illness both deepens and frays romantic relationships, endowing the dying with a kind of security and purpose that healthy people crave. His portrayal of the once-blessed Meeks brothers, raised in expectation of fame and riches they’ll never attain — not even close — is full of affecting pathos.

But what’s gained by having another dim-witted Adonis wander around this novel with “his frank and uncaring beauty . . . his heedlessly perfect body”? This is the same pinup boy-toy we saw in Cunningham’s previous novel, “By Nightfall,” though he was more central to that plot. Here, as one of Barrett and Tyler’s pretty acquaintances, he’s just a catalogue hunk, and even the sexual energy inscribed on these pages looks like the faint impression left under eight sheets of carbon paper.

Thematically, too, “The Snow Queen” eventually reveals itself to be insufficiently ambitious. How many times have we already heard the depressing sermon about overeducated, underemployed New Yorkers bumping up against the disappointing limits of their lives? For all his stylistic elegance, Cunningham doesn’t offer the theological sophistication and spiritual insight that, say, Marilynne Robinson might bring to the existential questions this novel poses. And so “The Snow Queen” struggles to rise higher than its characters’ grasping efforts to reach the divine. We’re left with beautifully articulated ironies and sighs.

“I keep waiting for . . . something,” Barrett tells a friend toward the end. “Something more than just us. You know, more than looking for love and wondering where to go for dinner.”

“Everybody wants that to be true,” his friend replies.

Of novels, too.

Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.

THE SNOW QUEEN

By Michael Cunningham

Farrar Straus Giroux. 258 pp. $26

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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