Michael Cunningham’s new fiction is great.

Posted on July 20, 2009
Filed Under Fiction Review | 275 Comments

Michael CunninghamThe current issue of Electric Literature magazine has a new fiction excerpt from Michael Cunningham.  As soon as I received my copy, I read this excerpt quickly, throughly enjoying it, but also expecting to be unsatisfied at the end.  The piece is labelled “an excerpt from a novel in progress.”  But to my surprise it read like a free-standing short story.  And a great one.  This is a word I rarely use.  There are only a handful of short stories that I would label “great.”  But since I first read this excerpt, I have been almost literally haunted by it.  I have gone back and read it again and again and again.  And each time I appreciate it more.  Appreciate is not the right word.  I love this story.  And I have found myself wanting to cry out like Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman: “Attention must be paid!”

In this new fiction, Mr. Cunningham tells the story of two brothers–one gay, one straight–growing up in the midwest.  It is a frequently humorous variation of the Cain and Abel myth.  Reading this excerpt, I was reminded of why I loved Mr. Cunningham’s first novel so much.  As in A Home at the End of the World, this new excerpt combines multi-faceted characterization with illustrative dialogue and a solid plot structure.  But there is something new here.  Mr. Cunningham has always been an expert at showing–at describing–the world his characters inhabit.  But in this new excerpt Mr. Cunningham allows his omniscient narrator a voice.  Thus, he tells more.  And the effect is both delightful and insightful.

The narrator’s witty voice even shows up in the dialogue, as the older, gay brother tries to talk to his younger, straight brother about their mother:

“She’s still a beautiful woman.  There’s nothing for her here.  She’s like Madame Bovary.”

“Really?”

Peter at the time had no idea who Madame Bovary was, but imagined her to be an infamous figure who presaged doom–he had in all likelihood mixed her up with Madame Defarge.

I don’t want to say anything about the plot.  Except to say that it is surprising, logical and poignant.

We live in a society of speed readers.  We’re so bombarded by media that it’s sometimes easy to forget that we have the choice to slow down–to savor quality writing.  On my fifth reading of Mr. Cunningham’s new work I found myself reading it extremely slowly–admiring each paragraph like a fine painting.  Here is one of my favorites:

They are on their family summer vacation, a week in a musky pine-paneled cabin on Mackinac Island.  Matthew is by now, and Peter is about to be, too old to delight in these trips.  The cabin is no longer a repository of familiar wonders (the beds still shrouded in mosquito netting, all the board games still there!) but a dreary and tedious exile, a full week of their mother’s quiet fury over the fun they don’t seem to be having and their father’s dogged attempts to provide it; spiders in the bathrooms and cold little wavelets plashing and plashing against the gravelly beach.

An excerpt from Michael Cunningham’s Olympia, a novel in progress, is published in the current edition of Electric Literature.

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 28, 2010:  This excerpt did not make its way into Mr. Cunningham’s new novel, By Nightfall.  Perhaps it is a free-standing story, after all.  If so, it is one of the great American short stories.  On a par with Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited.”

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