Rating: 2 stars
I’ve now read two books by Michael Cunningham. Is that enough to judge him? I’ve decided that it is. I’ve decided that he has one book, and it is about a man with a flawed-but-worshipped dead mother, a sense of being better than people will acknowledge, a need to be the centre of the universe while sacrificing himself in fake humility, and a falling through a window. It is also a book full of self absorbed bullshit.
I don’t mind if an author has one book that plays in variations across a number of volumes, as long as I like that book. I can’t find it in myself to like Michael Cunningham’s book. I thought I’d enjoyed The Hours until I read this one and it reminded me of the things I didn’t like about The Hours.
I can appreciate the skillful way Cunningham has with words, his turn of phrase, the wryness in the literary arching of his eyebrow, but a novel needs to be more than just clever. The author needs to be more than that, too.
The book is well written. Cunningham’s words paint beautifully stark pictures. The descriptions of snowy Brooklyn are lovely, as are the moments of pure stillness that punctuate the babble of people talking incessantly about themselves and their angst. Oh, the human condition! It’s such an uninteresting thing at times.
I couldn’t fully care about the characters. They were too remote, too studied, symbols of something, rather than flesh and blood. The same was true of the characters in The Hours. I thought then that it was down to Cunningham emulating the brittleness of Mrs Dalloway. The Snow Queen made me aware that this is simply his style. As is taking a classic novel and extemporising on its themes, in this case Madame Bovary. In both his books that I’ve read, he’s chosen classics that I can’t stand. Perhaps we’re not meant to be friends, Michael Cunningham and I.
So, how to review a book that I had to grind my way through. I can’t. I can only offer you my random jottings, made as I read. You might like the book. Don’t let me put you off. There are times when I meet people at parties and don’t like them, when other people I know tell me that they’re great.
Section 1: A Night
I like words. I like discovering unfamiliar words and expanding my vocabulary. I like rediscovering words I’ve forgotten because they’ve fallen out of common currency. Some words I don’t like, because other, better words exist. Inchoate is one such word. Michael Cunningham likes the word inchoate. Enough to make two separate characters use it in unconnected ways within 20 pages of each other. It’s such an odd word. Its dictionary definition employs all the alternative words that are better than it to describe it. Its oddness makes it leap from the page. Whenever I encounter it, it makes me stop and try to fit into the narrative whichever of its meanings works best within the context of the story.
Although not excessive, Cunningham’s use of the word is an indicator of why The Snow Queen isn’t going to be a hit for me. It’s a little too self aware. It’s not a book that encourages warmth. Quite apart from its snowy New York setting, the characters are difficult to warm to. They are very earnest, humourless almost. Life isn’t a barrel of laughs for them, certainly. One is a gay man approaching middle age and unable to settle to a job or find a man to settle down with. One is a middle aged musician who can’t accept his mediocrity, so hides in cocaine. He’s the older brother of the gay man. One is a woman, dying of some form of cancer that her doctors can’t pinpoint. She’s the girlfriend of the musician. One is a woman in her fifties, having an affair with a man in his twenties. She’s the business partner of the dying girlfriend and the employer of the gay man, who is also in love with the man in his twenties. I couldn’t work out why I was supposed to care about them.
Section 2: New Year’s Eve, 2006
We’ve moved on a year or so, another winter, the night before 2006 begins. More characters are introduced. Our main gay man reminds me of a friend, but less loveable. It interested me how I am entertained and engaged by my friend’s experience of wanting to be in a relationship but not wanting to compromise, and wanting to feel settled but not knowing how to be settled, but Barrett’s experiences left me cold.
And yet, as we crept towards midnight, and Barrett got high, he became more human. The woman in her 50s, Liz, helped humanise him. Thinking of him as similar to my friend humanised him. The rest of the party, not so much.
Section 3: A Night
I’ve been on the ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island. I’ve scattered someone’s ashes in a public place, trying to be inconspicuous, feeling vaguely criminal but not knowing why. Not at the same time, but I have had those experiences. My experiences mean more to me than the one described in this book.
Section 4: November 2008
After the revelation in section 3, life goes on. Changes are afoot. Secrets that weren’t even hinted at earlier in the book are dropped in as though Cunningham didn’t know where to go with the story so decided to make it a different one. He chose The Hours. The bit about men being obsessed with the way their mothers raised them and the secrets they might have been trying to pass on. And there’s a falling through the window scene. And there’s a realisation that someone else has been focusing their life on you and deciding to release them scene. And a whole lot of other navel gazing guff in between. Back to not knowing why I should care. The last seven pages, stuck in that room with the drug addled failing musician, were the hardest grind of the lot. I was very bored.
Oh, Michael. I wanted to like your book. But I couldn’t find it in myself.