The Snow Queen, by Michael Cunningham

Cunningham seems to have put two ideas together here in this 2014 novel. One is to recreate the difficulty of creating art, in this case composing songs rather than writing novels. And the second is to write a novel about the love of two men, except, not sexual love but brotherly love—a kind of love that may have intrigued this gay writer, and a kind seldom explored in literature.

But since there is an abstract aspect to these two ideas, a quietness that does not immediately grab reader interest, he introduces a mysterious light that one brother sees in the sky as he crosses New York’s Central Park. What can it mean?

And so we have the story of Tyler and Barrett Meeks. The older Tyler is living with girl friend Beth, who is dying of cancer, but he invites Barrett, a gay man and a victim of many unfulfilled love affairs, to live with them. It is this act of brotherly love, the relationship that it reveals, that is the prime achievement of this novel. Less significant are Liz, Beth’s older friend who has joined her in running a kind of used clothing shop, and Andrew, Liz’ lover, whom Barrett yearns for.

Nothing dramatic will happen in this novel. Indeed, one moment of drama, concerning Beth, is deliberately avoided. The result is more a portrait of a small group of people, no longer young and unable to find their station in life and unable to accept their fate, and yet who still yearn for something—for, we can fathom, the unachievable. The mysterious light that Barrett has seen at the start of the novel is often referred to, but it is more suggestive than real. It is perhaps intended to symbolize the yearnings of these characters, for fulfillment, but it plays no role in this novel beyond that of a maguffin.

I have been a fan of Cunningham in the past, in part because he has explored new literary grounds. But he does not do so here, despite his ability to write interesting scenes and interesting conversations, and to capture the yearnings of characters who are no longer young and yet are surrounded by the culture of youth in their Brooklyn neighborhood. Bottom line for me, this novel has been a disappointment.

The disappointment begins with the mysterious light, of which nothing is made except inconsequential musings, and it ends with a poetic musing that conveys a transient mood, but no conclusion to our story. In between is an ex-Catholic’s musings about a mysterious (not divine) presence in our characters’ lives, a presence that one brother avoids through drugs and another through sex. There is even a surprise, with the revelation of an affair between two of the characters, which is perhaps intended to reveal the desperation within each partner, but which seems to have no consequences—despite its inclusion in the poetic ending.           

The critics have liked this novel, but I have not. I cannot relate to characters who have lost their way, fail to find an answer in sex or drugs, or even a moment of religion, and revert at the end to a dream world apparently out of reach. Compassion is heartfelt, but not enough by itself. (August, 2016)

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Flesh and Blood, by Michael Cunningham

This 1995 work is Cunningham before he found his literary voice. I did finally get caught up by this family at the end of their saga, but for much of this book it is a kind of bildungsroman, a family saga novel in which three generations come of age and a lot happens. But it is life happening rather than one or more characters influencing or motivating the actions of others. And this is the kind of novel that does not appeal to me.

Because, while there is a maturing inside the characters, there is an absence of interaction that prompts the reader to want to know what comes next. That may also be why each time I returned to reading about this family, I found it difficult to remember where I had left off. There was no moment of action, no event, that had me wondering what would be coming next.

But at the end, the characters do begin reacting to the family situation, and to the arrival of death and their own vulnerability. And I ended up being unexpectedly moved by this novel. Moved not so much by the individual fate of the characters as by an interactive portrait of family life that I could relate to.

This novel basically covers the years from 1958 to 1995, a period of significant social change. It begins with a beautiful, ambitious Mary and a shy, immature Constantine falling in love and marrying. But then the portrait of Constantine changes, for once he has children he becomes an old-school protective father, a strict disciplinarian. Whereupon, Cunningham becomes more interested, anyway, in the children: Billy (later Will), Susan, and Zoe. Will discovers he is homosexual, Susan marries a lawyer and enters an unsatisfied but comfortable life, and Zoe has an affair with a black man who leaves her pregnant. This rich material extends through the novel, but while the characters interact with sympathy regarding each one’s situation, they really do not affect each other’s situation.

The final portion of the novel introduces Ben, the son of Susan, and Jamal, the slightly younger son of Zoe. Ben is quiet, and is troubled despite his comfortable life, but we cannot more than suspect the source of that trouble until the end. Jamal is more outgoing but as a half-black boy has his own problems.

Two other major characters are Cassandra and Harry. Cassandra is a friend of Zoe’s, a transvestite, a man whose dress and social life is that of a woman. She was for me the most interesting character in the book, not least because she was very outspoken about who she is and was not afraid to bluntly advise others about their lives. Indeed, she is appreciated by the conservative Mary, who recognizes how much she has helped Zoe.

Harry, on the other hand, is not complex at all. In fact, he seems to serve mainly as an opportunity for Will to be a sexual person and to have an emotional life that is never probed. (Only father Constantine reacts to it.) Perhaps it is because I know the author is gay, but my reaction to Will and Harry is that that their relationship is never developed, and that it exists chiefly to enable the author to treat the fact of homosexuality and, early on, to describe intimate homosexual scenes. I will acknowledge the effectiveness of one such scene, however, in which a stranger lets Will seduce him and then reveals he is to be married the next day and just wanted to have such an experience before his life changed. The unfairness of a gay man’s life in that era really hits home in this scene.

My problem with this novel is that I did not care for these characters as much as Cunningham obviously did. The details of family life, the understanding that each of the children and the mother shows for the others, in fact, made me wonder how much this work may be autobiographical. This was particularly true of the gay life here. Of course, other parts may not be, because the children of this family are carefully split up to express three different life styles, the gay life, the traditional suburban life, and the life of a single rebellious girl in a world of drugs and poverty. Cunningham sympathetically portrays each child, of course, even as he exposes their failures to fulfill their dreams, thus suggesting that their suburban origin is not all it’s cracked up to be.

To sum up, this work was a disappointment until the end, when death enters and the children are finally forced to react to each other’s situation, especially to that of Zoe and Cassandra and that of Susan through Ben. A tacked on explanation of the rest of their lives was unnecessary, however, even as it leaves Jamal as the surviving heart of the family. In fact, its main purpose seems to be to reflect the traditions of the old-fashioned novel. Not that the family stories told here are old-fashioned at all.

This novel will deflect me from searching out more early Cunningham novels, but I am still interested in his more recent work. When gay life is at the heart of the novel, such as coming to terms with it, it works for me in literature. But when it is on the periphery, and yet is explored, it turns me off. Yes, the author wants to present how natural it is in some people, but I do not need to follow it into the bedroom—as I do not need to in straight love stories, either. (December, 2015)