February 19, 2007
Michael Cunningham: A Home at the End of the World
Before Specimen Days had us all goggling at that third section (even now I can’t quite believe he went ahead and did it: was he trying to do a Cloud Atlas, I wonder?), even before The Hours did the double with the PEN/Faulkner and the Pulitzer, Michael Cunningham wrote a novel called A Home at the End of the World. It has some similarities with those later books, though thankfully it doesn’t rely on the formula of homosexual writer’s work + three sections + title with a unit of time in it (and might I suggest Winterson’s Week for your next opus, Mr C?).
Actually it almost does the three sections thing. The story is narrated by three contemporaries, Jonathan, Bobby and Clare – but Jonathan’s mother Alice gets the odd look-in too. The book was published in 1990 and tells their stories from childhood until that point, though I could have done with more regular milestones to tell us what year, or even decade, we were in at any one time. Because the scenes are quite discrete, and don’t directly follow on from one another. So Jonathan might be telling us about something in his youth, and then the next chapter might be Bobby, recounting events a couple of years later. The effect this has is positive in the sense that it enables Cunningham to work a fairly epic feel out of fewer than 350 pages, but negative in that there’s a loss of continuity, and only sporadically does the novel get a real flow going.
The opening paragraph is just a peach:
Once our father bought a convertible. Don’t ask me. I was five, He bought it and drove it home as casually as he’d bring a gallon of rocky road. Picture our mother’s surprise. She kept rubber bands on the doorknobs. She washed old plastic bags and hung them on the line to dry, a string of thrifty tame jellyfish floating in the sun. Imagine her scrubbing the cheese smell out of a plastic bag on its third or fourth go round when our father pulls up in a Chevy convertible, used but nevertheless—a moving metal landscape, chrome bumpers and what looks like acres of molded silver car-flesh. He saw it parked downtown with a For Sale sign and decided to be the kind of man who buys a car on a whim. We can see as he pulls up that the manic joy has started to fade for him. The car is already an embarrassment. He cruises into the driveway with a frozen smile that matches the Chevy’s grille.
That’s Bobby, who turns out to be a troubled, ‘cool’ teen, to Jonathan’s gentler, more stereotypically gay character. Clare doesn’t come in until halfway through. But the lightness of tone and peculiarity of vision in the opening paragraph are mostly absent thereafter, and as we found in The Hours and Specimen Days, Cunningham’s fiction is pretty much a humour-free zone. The compensation for this is that there are some highly moving scenes, such as with Carlton near the beginning and Erich near the end, but the overall feel for me was too often suffused with what I can only describe as a kind of mimsy wetness. Everyone is angst-ridden, and even in the midst of the scalene love triangle which the three main characters involve themselves in, what I too frequently wanted to do was just give one or more of them a slap.
But the story does develop a richness in its low-level tragedy as it progresses, and the last line of the book proper (as opposed to the slightly needless epilogue) seemed to me a fine way to finish, and not far in temperament or content from the equally strong close of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain (“Nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it”).