In ‘The Snow Queen’ author Michael Cunningham’s novels, nothing is meaningless

May 29, 2014

In Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham’s novels, nothing — no mundane action or feeling or unspoken thought ­— is meaningless. Or, if it is, perhaps that means something, too.

Cunningham’s new novel, “The Snow Queen,” which he’ll discuss Tuesday at Politics and Prose, joins a collection of work that imbues the quiet moments of his characters’ lives with existential questioning. A strange light in the sky might be a hallucination — or it might be a portent of wonderful or terrible things to come. Baking a birthday cake might just be a chore, but it might also represent the suffocating pull of normality on a creative soul. The rattle of a sewing machine might be mere mechanics, but it might be a siren song from an otherworldly purgatory.

In each of the novels below, Cunningham weaves an ode to the immortal city of New York and its artistic souls and lost citizens. His books remind us that the mythologies we imagine about our lives stem from seemingly ordinary moments and seemingly ordinary people.

‘The Snow Queen’ (2014)

Barrett Meeks sees a light in the sky above Central Park. And it sees him in return. And it’s gone.

How does one move forward from a brush with the divine? How does a regular person — like intelligent but indolent Barrett, like his floundering musician and addict brother Tyler — find meaning in a possibly uncaring universe?

With elegant prose that peeks into the most private thoughts of his characters, Cunningham challenges the reader to imagine a pervasive, indifferent god — if any god even exists.

Barrett, Tyler and their fellow New York underachiever friends struggle to blend their hopes for love, for artistic brilliance, for vindication, with reality. But even if they can reach their goals, would their lives matter? As Tyler reflects about Barrett’s experience: “Heaven winked at you, right? Maybe. Maybe it did. Or maybe it was just an airplane and a cloud. But if Heaven winks at anybody, it’s probably the less-than conspicuous seekers … The universe only winks at the ones no one will believe.”

‘Specimen Days’ (2005)

Verses from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Glass” flow through this novel, inspiring the artistic and the mad, those on the verge of divine ecstasy.

The reader follows three sets of characters — each has a Simon, a Lucas and a Catherine — over 300 years in New York. An impoverished Irish boy, forced into manual labor, dreams of a world of stars and untamed nature. A modern-day police psychologist tries to prevent child terrorists from attacking New Yorkers at random. A simulated human in the future searches for the reason behind his manufacturing.

Appearances of Whitman’s words (and the poet himself) throughout the centuries impress on the reader the cyclical nature of time, that even the small struggles and triumphs of individuals are part of a human history. As several of Cunningham’s characters remind us, quoting from Whitman, “The smallest sprout shows that there’s really no death.”

‘The Hours’ (1998)

This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel moves between three women of different eras, linked by their fascination with Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway”: contemporary Clarissa, throwing a party for her dying, poetic ex-lover; book-loving Laura Brown, struggling with depression in 1950s Southern California; and suburb-trapped Woolf herself, who longs for the vitality of London, no matter the cost to her tenuous mental health.

The women work to define their identities, wrestling with the gaps between their outward displays and their true selves. They question whether a comfortable life and self-fulfillment can coexist.

As Woolf feigns sanity, Laura feigns domestic bliss and Clarissa pivots between satisfaction with her life and the allure of missed opportunities, the reader can’t help but reflect on the minute choices and simple moments that form a life path.

Cunningham’s esteem for Woolf burns in every passage. His contemplation of “Mrs. Dalloway” elucidates that work as he composes a powerful narrative of his own.

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Tue., 7 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)

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Rudi Greenberg · May 29, 2014