Farrar, Straus, Giroux
New York novelist Michael Cunningham has tended to pen intuitive modern soap operas--fat and complex family wars where the conflict is between generations and the casualties are from AIDS. His latest, The Hours, seems to wave goodbye to all that: The book is lean, precisely constructed, and limited, like its model, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, to the events of a single day. The three female protagonists who share the narrative do not move within the same time, space, or genetic pool. Yet The Hours reveals itself to be a more expansive family epic than either At Home at the End of the World (1990) or Flesh and Blood (1995). Its great clan comprises writers and readers; its war, the haphazard beauty and brutality of living.
Woolf plays architect, "lost mother," and--in Cunningham's most precious and effective gambit--one of the novel's main characters. Cunningham begins with Woolf's death, describing her walk to the river, her choice of anchoring stone, and her plunge with lovely detail. And by re-creating her suicide, he resuscitates her: Both Woolf's life and her end shape this story. Through the rest of the book, Woolf is shown, on one 1923 day in a London suburb, summoning up Clarissa Dalloway: an upper-class wife who finds that the acts of buying flowers and planning parties and seeing the sky darken over London are reason enough to keep living.
What Woolf taps that day becomes a river of thought that the book's other two women step into for refreshment. Laura Brown's morning begins as she reaches over to her bed-stand books and dips into Mrs. Dalloway; it's Los Angeles in 1949, and Laura is pregnant and suffocating. A homemaker with one child already and a husband who disappears to do his important work in the city every day between dawn and dusk, Laura cannot imagine her hours continuing as they have: spent cooking, cleaning, being the living symbol of everything decent and stable for her son and her husband, a World War II GI. Like many of Cunningham's characters, Laura is trying to act a role that pinches and chafes. A confirmed bookworm and potential lesbian and writer, she discovers in Mrs. Dalloway--and Mrs. Woolf--the possibility of demanding more from life, and the courage to exit her own.
Clarissa, Cunningham's third subject, has been nicknamed "Mrs. Dalloway" by her erstwhile lover and dearest friend, Richard. A New York book editor in the late 1990s, 52-year-old Clarissa exemplifies how wide Woolf's river has spread: Without a lot of trouble, she has claimed the social freedoms denied Brown and Woolf. Clarissa's "might have been" romantic relationship was with Richard, who is gay; she chose instead to make her bed with Sally. (Even the names are drawn from Mrs. Dalloway's love knot, which in turn echoes Woolf's relationships with Leonard Woolf and Vanessa Bell). She and Sally own not only a room of their own but a large, well-appointed house. Now she walks the bright streets of New York, preparing a party for Richard, musing over the past. She hardly notices how her nickname particularly suits her on this day of days.
For, as much as the original Mrs. Dalloway, this Clarissa mourns what she hasn't accomplished, what never came to be. Her first kiss with Richard haunts her; it was, she thinks, "perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more." Their promising kiss did not pledge happiness, she knows now; it was happiness. The idea of more--of escalating pleasure--thrills the soul. It also may be the fu el responsible for the social changes that occurred between Woolf's time and Cunningham's, changes that Laura's drama represents. There are hours, ponders Clarissa, so intense, so fulfilling, that we scrabble on living just trying to recreate them: "We hope, more than anything, for more." Novels and poetry--art--are a form of those deep hours, that distilled life water, suggests Cunningham. I think Woolf would agree.
It was Woolf's distressing notion, recorded in her journals, that the bouts of brain static she endured--debilitating headaches, imaginary voices, panic--were necessary to her writing. Cunningham picks up on this view and repeats it in the person of melodramatic Richard, a celebrated poet who is dying of AIDS, his mind "eaten into lace by the virus." There is occasionally in The Hours a lazy propensity to view the artist as somehow suffering for the good of the republic. She inhabits, goes the argument, those visionary hours that others can only visit and so crave; she "sees meaning everywhere, knows that trees are sentient beings," and it wears her to the marrow. She cannot, eventually, imagine another hour living so close to "lethal, intolerable truth."
At its best, and that is a lyrical, crystalline best, The Hours embodies a balance between lethal, life-changing vision and the daily, mundane work of caring, writing, and actually changing one's world; between the soul and its carapace. In these pages, we can even picture that "martyr and fiend" Virginia Woolf grown ancient, clear-eyed survivor of illness and fame. We can picture her whole, and imagine the union of those two selves--the blazing genius and the "ordinary" Mrs. Dalloway--that she kept separate at such great cost. This is what literature, the writing and reading of it, can do: Dream the new skin, the next way to ask for more. Then we punch the clock again.
Michael Cunningham reads 8 p.m. Wednesday, December 9 at the Hungry Mind; 699-0587.