Author Michael Cunningham sees the light of 'Day'

  • by Brian Brmberger
  • Tuesday January 16, 2024
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Author Michael Cunningham<br>(photo: Richard Phibbs)
Author Michael Cunningham
(photo: Richard Phibbs)

As we recede further from the ordeal that was the frightening, cataclysmic 2020 COVID pandemic, new novels process the pandemic as the life-changing event it was for some people. It was also a creative juggernaut for various artists and authors.

While many were streaming Netflix and Amazon Prime watching the latest television series and movies (what did you do during lockdown?), others such as Michael Cunningham were writing and figuring out the pandemic's implications for our lives in his new book, "Day: A Novel," his first since "The Snow Queen" (2014).

It's his best work since his now classic novel, "The Hours" (1998) which was a bestseller, awarded the Pulitzer Prize, adapted into the 2002 Oscar-winning movie (starring Nichole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore), and two years ago was adapted into an opera.

Is "Day" as good as "The Hours?" No, it is not, but it's a solid winning return to form for Cunningham. Once again, he is indebted to the artistic muse that has inspired his imagination throughout his career: Virginia Woolf.

Author Michael Cunningham
(photo: Wikipedia)  

Day in the life
"Day" follows a couple, Isabel and Dan, their two children, and Isabel's gay brother Robbie, who lives in the attic loft, on April 5 in 2019 (before the pandemic) in the morning, 2020 (during the pandemic), at midday and 2021 (after the lockdown) in the evening. The words pandemic, lockdown, and COVID are never mentioned, but in the last two sections overshadow the narrative.

The first section finds Robbie being asked to leave the cramped two-bedroom Brooklyn brownstone, because ten-year-old angry Nathan is too old to share a bedroom with his precocious five-year-old sister Violet. This is painful for all concerned, as Robbie is the favorite uncle and back-up caregiver to his niece and nephew.

He teaches sixth grade history in a New York City public school and has recently split up with his boyfriend for whom he still pines. He's having difficulty finding an apartment he can afford and now questions his decision 15 years ago to reject several medical school acceptances.

Both Isabel and Dan love Robbie and consider him their closest friend. He's the emotional fulcrum of the novel, as he connects everyone. "It's time to abandon a life of reasonable expectations. It's time to be more interesting to himself," he murmurs alone.

Isabel is the most dissatisfied, creating tension in the family, as she's slowly realizing she doesn't love Dan anymore. She's discontent with her position as a senior photo editor "who loved her job until the day she didn't," at a print magazine soon to close. She feels as if she's impersonating a mother and finds refuge sitting alone in the dark on the stairs.

Borrowed life
When younger, Dan was a minor singer-songwriter (with a defunct band) and now recovered addict, who at age forty and stocky, yearns to revive (recognizing he's sweetly delusional) his long-stalled career, which has degenerated into performing at a local Mexican restaurant.
He's basically a house husband, aware that he and Isabel are drifting apart, but longs to write the perfect song ("sorrow porn") in the hope it will bring them together.

Dan's younger brother Garth, a sculptor, years ago agreed to be a sperm-donor to his lesbian college friend Chess, and falls in love with their infant son Odin. Only Chess doesn't want him in their lives.

Trying to revive some of their childhood fantasies, Robbie and Isabel invent a fake Instagram alter-ego personality, a handsome gay thirty-something pediatrician named Wolfe, who works at a community clinic. They "borrow" other people's photos, pretending he's their imaginary brother. He garners 3407 followers and many "likes." Cunningham seems to be satirizing social media, since none of Wolfe's followers care if he's real or not.

During the pandemic, Robbie lives in a remote Icelandic cabin outside Reykjavik, writes letters to Isabel and posts Wolfe's photos and activities online along with his beagle dog. Isabel and Dan's home feels more like a prison, though at one point Isabel will retreat to an upstate country house in utter disrepair. There will occur a catastrophic event that will alter all their lives, extending beyond the lockdown, which we won't reveal here.

Quietly harrowing
This quietly harrowing novel is populated with disillusioned late thirty-somethings, who are disappointed that life hasn't lived up to their expectations. They seem in stasis, unable to move forward, despite wanting to make changes, but continuing to repeat self-defeating patterns. They seek refuge in make-believe, whether it be a pseudo-Internet character or unattainable goals.

Isabel "ponders the prospect that decadent unhappiness might be worse than genuine legitimate despair...Which is, as she knows, a decadent question to pose at all."

As Cunningham accomplished in "The Hours," mimicking Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" (whose protagonist Clarissa, wife of a member of Parliament, is giving a party on a June day in 1920s London), the novel occurs in one day that reflects each character's whole life: April 5, though extending over three years.

It's probably not a coincidence that Robbie's idealized version of himself is named Wolfe (a homonym for Woolf). Instead of taking place at the height of the AIDS epidemic, "Day" grapples with the effects of COVID-19. Also at the center of both stories is a mother who contemplates escaping from her family. And the specter of death will make a stark appearance in these two books.

Elegant stylist
Cunningham is an elegant stylist and creates a wistful, elegiac tone. He always treats his characters with compassion even in their ignoble moments. He sees the lockdown as forging an epidemic of loneliness, with physical separation from family and friends resulting in the erosion of anchors which held lives together.

Ultimately "Day" is about loss, whether it be the end of young adulthood to something unbearable. The characters are forced to reevaluate what's important to them and, despite their own resistance, make changes while they still can become better versions of themselves. They are fragile but also resilient, as they face the new normal, emerging from the pandemic.

Following Woolf, on one level very little happens in "Day," but looking back years later, there are seismic shifts occurring during these three days. Ultimately "Day" is hopeful because the characters, in spite of all they've forfeited, are able to proceed in an understated reluctant endurance.

There's a timeless quality here that is plaintive and seductive. But fans and admiring readers of Cunningham have much to celebrate, in that at age 71, he's rediscovered his unique poetic quotidian voice and we are the beneficiaries of a gay author at the height of his considerable talents.

'Day: a Novel,' by Michael Cunningham. Random House, $28.

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