A three strand yarn

A three strand yarn

Jefferson Chase delves into another whisky novel
Jefferson Chase

22 March 2013

Publication: Issue 110

One noticeable – and welcome – literary trend of recent years are novels that jump radically between historical eras and find continuity in themes, rather than single heroes and heroines. David Mitchell and Jennifer Egan are two writers who produce these sorts of books, and we can add American Michael Cunningham to their company.

His 2006 novel Specimen Days is divided into three parts, all of which take pace in New York City. The first is a historical tale of 19th century industrial squalor, the second, a contemporary cop story about a police psychologist’s battle against terrorists, and the third, a post-apocalyptic science fiction yarn.

Part three, entitled Like Beauty, begins with the protagonist Simon waiting to jump someone in Central Park:

Simon let the client get past the halfway point…Then he took off after him. He could see the man tense up. He continued obeying instructions, though. You’ll hear footsteps. Don’t turn to look. A New Yorker would never do a thing like that.

In this dystopian future, the United States has disintegrated into a number of zones ruled alternately by corporate soulnessness and frontier violence. New York City has become a theme park where the affluent pay for the thrill of getting mugged – in controlled fashion of course.

Simon is a faux mugger, replete with Pumas and a CBGB’s t-shirt. But he and one of his co-workers are also androids, products of artificial-intelligence research that have fallen out of fashion and that must stay underground or risk being destroyed, as a friend is by one of the security drones that patrol the Big Apple:

This is what they were, then. Flesh joined to a titanium armature…Simon squeezed his own bicep, tenderly but probingly. There was a rod inside, bright silver. Marcus had been, in essence, a dream his skeleton was having. Simon was that, too.

Who doesn’t feel, some days, like a dream his skeleton is having? Anyone passingly acquainted with science fiction will recognise the machines-as-more-human-than-humans trope, but it’s the details that make Specimen Days come to life. Like the fact Simon’s after-work drink of choice is a blue lemonade made of serotonin –happiness hormones:

Corporate intention diminished the liquid’s beauty, shallowed it out. The most potent incidences of beauty were the ones that felt like personal discoveries…as if some vast intelligence had singled you out and wanted to show you something.

Simon is about to flee New York in search of his creator and an answer to the question of what this beauty is.

Cunningham suggests why people value handcrafted products like fine whiskies. They are the results of human culture available for discovery by everyone.

Products with soul are one of things that make us individuals and not specimens.

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