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Michael Cunningham Biography

novel jonathan lives characters

Nationality: American. Born: Ohio, 1952. Education: Attended Stanford University; University of Iowa, M.F.A. Career: Worked for Carnegie Corp., New York, beginning in 1986. Awards: Pulitzer prize, 1999.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Golden States. New York, Crown, 1984.

A Home at the End of the World. New York, Farrar Straus, andGiroux, 1990.

Flesh and Blood. New York, Farrar Straus, and Giroux, 1995.

The Hours. New York, Farrar Straus, and Giroux, 1998.

* * *

Recent critical praise for Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, came as no surprise to those who followed his progression since the publication of A Home at the End of the World in 1990. The Hours addresses themes that have long been preoccupations of the author's: adopted social roles that end up owning us; the common desire to flee from our lives; the solution to that desire provided by suicide, but also by creativity; and the strained role of family in the late twentieth century. In addition, these universal issues are often explored within the further complicating frame of homosexuality. The manner in which Cunningham subtly inserts the many references to homosexuality has an effortless, natural quality. As some critics have noted, Cunningham's treatment of gay themes could only be a recent literary manifestation. This is no longer the "fearful closet" novel of the 1960s nor the "defiant ghetto" writing of the 1970s, rather it is fiction that treats homosexuality (and the looming shadow of AIDS) as just one subject among many.

Most of Cunningham's characters have a nagging suspicion that they are not living the lives they should be, that they are engaged in acts of "impersonation" that belittle their true selfhood. Despite depicting the occasional escape from role constraints, Cunningham's vision remains bleak with only flashes of hope shining through, often at the very conclusion of his texts. His novels focus on the shadow that falls between what is and what might have been, and the result is at best wistful and, at worst, despairing.

Told in four different voices, A Home at the End of the World presents the story of Jonathan and Bobby, boyhood friends in Cleveland during the 1970s. Each boy seeks to escape familial demands: Jonathan, his needy mother, Alice; Bobby the tragedy that slowly engulfs his family after the accidental death of his beloved older brother. Jonathan and Bobby's relationship becomes sexual, but, unlike openly homosexual Jonathan, Bobby's sexual identity remains ambiguous—the sex he has with both Jonathan and, later with Jonathan's roommate Clare, lacks any real desire on his part for either of them ("I'd had orgasms that passed through me like the spirits of people more devoted to the body than I was").

The other voices in the novel belong to Alice, Jonathan's mother, and Clare, with whom he plans to have a child and begin a "new" family of his own. It is, in fact, Bobby, whom Clare ultimately chooses to conceive with. The three of them then attempt to live their version of utopia in a house in Woodstock, with both men playing father to the child. But this New Family splits at the seams, and Clare leaves with her child to begin her life anew. Jonathan and Bobby stay on to care for an old lover of Jonathan's who is dying of an unnamed virus and the novel ends in a mock baptism, as the three men stand in an icy pond in April. The new beginning implied leaves the reader with an unmistakable chill.

Actually creating a home at the end of the world may require that old models of family be trashed rather than revamped. After all, it is only when he finds himself with his ambivalent lover, Bobby, and his dying friend, Erich, that Jonathan finds some sort of epiphany: "I was merely present, perhaps for the first time in my adult life. The moment was unextraordinary. But I had the moment, I had it completely. It inhabited me. I realized that if I died soon I would have known this, a connection with my life, its errors and cockeyed successes." Cunningham seems to be saying that life's imperfections, the mistakes, are the thing. Accepting them with integrity makes for happiness rather than engaging in a hapless quest to efface them.

Cunningham's next novel, Flesh and Blood, belongs to the family epic tradition, spanning a century in the lives of the Stassos family (beginning in 1935 and ending with a prophetic and imaginary chapter that takes place in 2035). The novel focuses on Greek-born Constantine, his wife, Mary, and their three children, Billy, Susan, and Zoe. But it is drag queen Cassandra who provides the psychic center of the novel. As best friend to Zoe, surrogate mother to Jamal, Zoe's son, and eventually confidante to Mary, Cassandra acts as the mouthpiece for Cunningham's particular blend of optimism and pessimism. Having tested HIV-positive, Cassandra still manages to dish out words of wisdom and find the true balance between the various absolutist philosophies presented in the novel.

Cunningham manages to involve us in the lives of his particular characters, despite the secondary emphasis on plotline. The novel once again reveals the author's predominant concerns. Family is not something to seek solace and security from, but rather to flee. The characters resort to aberrant behavior as a means of expression (physical abuse, kleptomania, promiscuity, adultery, substance abuse). In fact, deviancy is so commonplace in the novel that one begins to wonder whether Cunningham wishes us to reconsider our standards for determining what is indeed normal.

The various characters adopt roles that thwart any possibility of self-actualization: Susan's brush with incest propels her into an early marriage with her first boyfriend to play the devoted wife; Billy, a homosexual, reacts angrily to his father's physical abuse and becomes a fifth grade teacher instead of an architect, primarily to spite his father; Zoe rejects a well-defined role, but her aimlessness turns tragic as she contracts AIDS. They are all in some state of anguish. They watch their lives pass them by; it is not that their lives are unexamined, it is simply that they feel powerless to change them. Neither parenthood, nor homosexuality, nor an alternative lifestyle, are sufficient to ground their identities. The characters remain plagued by uncertainty, constantly wondering at the lives they might have lived. As one notes, "We are adaptable creatures. It's the source of our earthly comfort and, I suppose, of our silent rage." This is an idea that Cunningham raises once more in his most balanced and accomplished work, The Hours.

Using Virginia Woolf's modernist techniques and Mrs. Dalloway as a springboard, The Hours consists of three concurrent narratives taking place at different times. The central narrative concerns Clarissa Vaughan, a present day book editor living in Greenwich Village, who is planning a party for her friend and former lover, Richard, a gay poet dying of AIDS. The second narrative tells a day in the life of Laura Brown, a housewife living in the suburbs of Los Angeles in 1949. To escape the monotony of her existence, she has given herself the task of reading all of Woolf's novels in order and has reached, of course, Mrs. Dalloway. The third narrative concerns Woolf herself as she sets out, in 1923, to write the novel that is the inspiration for Cunningham's text.

Cunningham subtly weaves a confluence of parallels to link the tales of these three women and revisit familiar themes: the notion of flight, restrictive roles, suicide as a means of escape, creativity as a means of momentarily eluding the grasp of that "old devil" that plagues us all (Woolf writing her novel, Laura making a cake, Clarissa hosting the party). Opening as the novel does with an evocative retelling of Woolf's suicide, the book is tinged with a longing for death. Death offers the ultimate escape, one that Woolf ponders for her protagonist, one that Laura Brown considers and attempts, and one that Richard actually accomplishes. Throughout Cunningham's oeuvre various characters become aware of the thin line that separates life from death, and that crossing that line is not the daunting experience they had always imagined it would be. Laura Brown sees that it would be, in fact, quite easy to end her own life; that the release suicide offers might compensate for whatever pain might be endured ("Think how wonderful it might be to no longer matter. Think how wonderful it might be to no longer worry, or struggle, or fail").

Suicide is treated as a temptation—the ultimate expression of free will, proof that we are not trapped in our lives. This realization is both liberating and frightening for Cunningham's characters. As pawns of something they have set in motion (frequently without any thought or conscious decision), this realization offers a sense of relief that helps some live and some die. Cunningham's fiction explores the gaps between our (creative) expectations and the reality of our lives. The creative endeavors of the characters in The Hours are representative of the plights of the majority of the men and women who people his books—individuals who have difficulty living in that space between perceptions of utter perfection and dismal failure.

—Tim Gauthier

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