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FICTION/Cunningham, Michael
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New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2014.
Main Author
Michael Cunningham, 1952- (-)
First edition
Physical Description
258 pages ; 22 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

"METEOROLOGY IS NOT SUPERFLUOUS to the story," W.G. Sebald advised the students in one of his final fiction-writing classes. It's an observation that has never seemed lost on Michael Cunningham. Consider how he introduces Virginia Woolf's last afternoon on earth in the opening sentence of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Hours": "She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather." And his 2010 novel "By Nightfall" ended with some rather Joycean evening snow tapping at the bedroom window of an affluent, troubled Manhattan husband, a man about to have a reckoning with his own self-centeredness. (Another excellent tip from Sebald: "I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can.") The main action of Cunningham's sixth novel, "The Snow Queen," commences with morning snow drifting through a different bedroom window, as if to pick up right where he left off in "By Nightfall." Now we're in pre-gentrified Bushwick, and this particular precipitation makes "a life-size snow globe" out of the dingy apartment that's home to Tyler Meeks, a struggling 43-year-old musician and bartender; his mortally ill fiancée, Beth; and his underemployed, lovelorn younger brother, Barrett. The snowy moment is enchanting, but it also underscores the desperation and vulnerability of this little family, unprotected from life's colder realities. It's November 2004, and Tyler is nursing his rage over the impending reelection of George W. Bush instead of attending to his own downward slide. Beth, a generous free spirit loved wholeheartedly by both brothers, sleeps and sleeps, her liver cancer apparently "getting neither better nor worse." Barrett, a Yale-educated former Wunderkind, can't exactly explain how he ended up working as a retail clerk, selling $250 vintage T-shirts at a Williamsburg shop owned by Beth's formidable best friend, Liz, and pining after 52-year-old Liz's 28-year-old boyfriend, Andrew. Still smarting after being dumped by the latest in a long string of seemingly promising boyfriends, Barrett is preoccupied by a celestial visitation. He has seen a strange blue light in the sky above Central Park that seems to be trying to communicate with him: "He felt the light's attention, a tingle that ran through him, a minute electrical buzz; a mild and pleasing voltage that permeated him, warmed him, seemed perhaps ever so slightly to illuminate him." Barrett doesn't know what to make of this, since he's "adamantly secular, as only an ex-Catholic can be." But thinking that maybe he's being given a glimpse of something bigger - something that might, at the very least, explain his own slump, or Beth's fate - he determines to figure out whether the light really existed in some verifiable way and, if so, what it signifies. The book's title is lifted straight from Hans Christian Andersen, and Cunningham also plunders the fairy tale for a sharp little snow crystal that blows into Barrett's brother's eye that morning, blearing his vision. We understand that Tyler needs to learn to see clearly, especially because this scene features a far more insidious white powder, the same one that upended the lives of the couple in "By Nightfall." "The Snow Queen" contains many almost terrifyingly good passages about cocaine. "Here it is. Here's the sting of livingness," Tyler thinks as he snorts his first line of the day. After sucking up a few more, naturally, he'll "resummon his rigor" and cut down again. Such is Cunningham's sorcery, his ability to spin even an addict's deluded mental processes into gorgeous prose, that you half believe Tyler will actually do it. In Tyler, Cunningham has created a fully sympathetic portrait of the artist as a middle-aged drug addict, his plight as moving as it is maddening. It works in Tyler's favor with the reader that he's determined to write a song for Beth, a transcendently perfect song to perform at their wedding, and the drugs have become a mainstay of his tortured creative process. With their "ice-hot clarity," he can finally "feel the song, suspended over his head." (It's a welcome if sad reality check that another drug-addled character starts off harmless, then becomes your standard-issue addict-scammer.) Barrett's search for transport beyond his own mundane suffering brings complications as well. His secret hope is that the blue light appeared to him because "some gigantic, hitherto unknown parent has decided it's time to let the children know that they're seen, they're accounted for, they haven't, after all, been lost in the forest all this time." Yet he can't tell anyone about his vision - not even, he decides, a doctor who might determine whether the episode was the result of, say, a brain tumor. ("Would he rather risk death than embarrassment? It seems that he would.") There's an undertow of exhaustion and even preposterousness to Barrett's quest - to be the person he is at this moment in time and also to be a person seeking (or open to being sought by) the divine. Barrett flirts with, or at least bats his eyes at, a return to the organized religion he and his educated, ironic, skeptical demographic have fled, with liberal-minded ex-Catholics like the Meeks brothers storming the exit doors. But Barrett can't get any traction. "Somebody's got to be right," he says experimentally to Tyler. "Why not the Catholics?" Tyler's answer: "You're sounding a little crazy." It's not just that conservative Catholicism in the age of the sexual abuse crisis repels the likes of Tyler and Barrett. It also seems as though, like all of Cunningham's characters, Tyler and Barrett have inner lives so crowded with secular scripture - literature, art and music - that there's little room left. Barrett takes to sitting in the back pews during Mass at a neglected church with just "a scattering of parishioners,... all elderly women." He settles for what he can get out of these visits to the ruins of his childhood religion: a feeling of being "peaceful. Semi-peaceful. That's about it." Somehow, as appealing as Barrett is, the story of his spiritual crisis seems rather static. I also wish that the two main female characters, Beth and Liz, didn't fall so neatly into what one might call a saint/ streetwalker paradigm. LUCKILY, "THE SNOW QUEEN" has more than enough else on its mind. At its best, the novel is Cunningham in his sweet spot, compassionate, emotionally exhilarating, devilishly fun. He gives us a stirring and wistful picture of early-21st-century New York, with its fast-shifting neighborhood dynamics and the strange, toxic social proximity of the carelessly wealthy and the just-getting-by. He forces us to interrogate the notions we hold about greatness and success. And as he gradually reveals the often surprising ways that each of the novel's central characters - Tyler, Barrett, Beth and Liz - is connected to the others, he offers up darkly alluring alternatives to shopworn views of love, sex and death. Many things happen in this book, yet its prose is unhurried and sensuous. "The Snow Queen" takes hold of you in a manner that feels almost primal, the way a fragrance wafts into a room and changes your mood, before you even realize it. New York's strange toxic social proximity of the carelessly wealthy and the just-getting-by. MARIA RUSSO is the editor in chief of Pasadena Magazine.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [May 11, 2014]
Review by Library Journal Review

Cunningham's (The Hours) latest is the story of Barrett and Tyler, two brothers living in Brooklyn in the early 2000s, each facing his own midlife struggle. Tyler is engaged to Beth, who has been diagnosed with stage IV cancer, and Barrett has moved in with them, having just been dumped by his boyfriend. Despite its title, the novel doesn't follow the structure of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and only lightly references that story's images of snow, mirrors, and enchantment. The appeal of Cunningham's Snow Queen lies in the author's expert rendering of the setting and social group the book revolves around, in his gift for the internal monologs of his characters, and in his wonderful prose, rather than in a strong plot. Narrator Clare Danes delivers an exceptionally good performance. Her clear, thoughtful reading is suited to both Cunningham's moments of soaring, lyrical language and to the casual, irreverent tone of the dialog among friends. verdict A well-written novel that's enriched by the audio performance. ["In concise yet descriptive language, Cunningham weaves the secret of transcendence through the mundane occurrences of everyday life," read the starred review of the Farrar hc, LJ 3/15/14.]-Heather Malcolm, Bow, WA (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

A NIGHT A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love. It was by no means his first romantic dropkick, but it was the first to have been conveyed by way of a five-line text, the fifth line of which was a crushingly corporate wish for good luck in the future, followed by three lowercase xxx's. During the past four days, Barrett had been doing his best to remain undiscouraged by what seemed, lately, to be a series of progressively terse and tepid breakups. In his twenties, love had usually ended in fits of weeping, in shouts loud enough to set off the neighbors' dogs. On one occasion, he and his soon-to-be-ex had fought with their fists (Barrett can still hear the table tipping over, the sound the pepper mill made as it rolled lopsidedly across the floorboards). On another: a shouting match on Barrow Street, a bottle shattered (the words "falling in love" still suggest, to Barrett, green glass shards on a sidewalk under a streetlamp), and the voice of an old woman, neither shrill nor scolding, emanating from some low dark window, saying, simply, "Don't you boys understand that people live here, people are trying to sleep," like the voice of an exhausted mother. As Barrett moved into his mid-, and then late, thirties, though, the partings increasingly tended to resemble business negotiations. They were not devoid of sorrow and accusation, but they had without question become less hysterical. They'd come to resemble deals and investments that had, unfortunately, gone wrong, despite early promises of solid returns. This last parting, however, was his first to be conveyed by text, the farewell appearing, uninvited, unanticipated, on a screen no bigger than a bar of hotel soap. Hi Barrett I guess u know what this is about. Hey we gave it our best shot right? Barrett did not, in fact, know what this was about. He got the message, of course--love, and whatever future love implied, had been canceled. But, I guess u know what this is about ? That had been something like a dermatologist saying, offhandedly, after your annual checkup, I guess you know that that beauty mark on your cheek, that little chocolate-colored speck that has been referred to, more than once, as an aspect of your general loveliness (who was it who said Marie Antoinette's penciled-on version had been in precisely that spot?), is actually skin cancer. Barrett responded initially in kind, by text. An e-mail seemed elderly, a phone call desperate. So he tapped out, on tiny keys, Wow this is sudden how bout we talk a little, I'm where I always am. xxx. By the end of the second day, Barrett had left two more texts, followed by two voice mails, and had spent most of the second night not leaving a third. By the end of day number three, he had not only received no reply of any kind, but also had begun to realize there would be no reply at all; that the sturdily built, earnest Canadian Ph.D. candidate (psychology, Columbia) with whom he'd shared five months of sex and food and private jokes, the man who'd said "I might actually love you" after Barrett recited Frank O'Hara's "Ave Maria" while they were taking a bath together, the one who'd known the names of the trees when they spent that weekend in the Adirondacks, was simply moving on; that Barrett had been left standing on the platform, wondering how exactly he seemed to have missed his train. I wish you happiness and luck in the future. xxx. On the fourth night, Barrett was walking across Central Park, headed home after a dental exam, which struck him on one hand as depressingly commonplace but, on the other, as a demonstration of his fortitude. Go ahead, rid yourself of me in five uninformative and woundingly anonymous lines. ( I'm sorry it just hasn't worked out the way we'd hoped it would, but I know we both tried our best. ) I'm not going to neglect my teeth for you. I'm going to be pleased, pleased and thankful, to know that I don't need a root canal, after all. Still, the idea that, without having been offered any time to prepare for it, he'd never witness the pure careless loveliness of this young man, who was so much like those lithe, innocent young athletes adoringly painted by Thomas Eakins; the idea that Barrett would never again watch the boy peel his briefs off before bed, never witness his lavish, innocent delight in small satisfactions (a Leonard Cohen mix tape Barrett made for him, called Why Don't You Just Kill Yourself ; a victory for the Rangers), seemed literally impossible, a violation of love-physics. As did the fact that Barrett would, apparently, never know what it was that had gone so wrong. There had been, during the last month or so, the occasional fight, the awkward lapse in conversation. But Barrett had assumed that the two of them were merely entering the next phase; that their disagreements (Do you think you could try not to be late some of the time? Why would you put me down like that in front of my friends?) were signposts of their growing intimacy. He hadn't remotely imagined that one morning he'd check his text messages and find love to have been lost, with approximately the degree of remorse one would feel over the loss of a pair of sunglasses. On the night of the apparition, Barrett, having been relieved of the threatened root canal, having promised to floss more faithfully, had crossed the Great Lawn and was nearing the floodlit, glacial mass of the Metropolitan Museum. He was crunching over ice-coated silver-gray snow, taking a shortcut to the number 6 train, dripped on by tree branches, glad at least to be going home to Tyler and Beth, glad to have someone waiting for him. He felt numb, as if his whole being had been injected with novocaine. He wondered if he was becoming, at the age of thirty-eight, less a figure of tragic ardency, love's holy fool, and more a middle manager who wrote off one deal (yes, there've been some losses to the company portfolio, but nothing catastrophic) and went on to the next, with renewed if slightly more reasonable aspirations. He no longer felt inclined to stage a counterattack, to leave hourly voice mails or stand sentry outside his ex's building, although, ten years ago, that's exactly what he'd have done: Barrett Meeks, a soldier of love. Now he could only picture himself as aging and destitute. If he summoned up a show of anger and ardency it would merely be meant to disguise the fact that he was broke, he was broken, please, brother, have you got anything you can spare? Barrett hung his head as he walked through the park, not from shame but weariness, as if his head had become too heavy to hold upright. He looked down at the modest blue-gray puddle of his own shadow, cast by the lampposts onto the snow. He watched his shadow glide over a pinecone, a vaguely runic scattering of pine needles, and the wrapper of an Oh Henry! bar (they still made Oh Henry! bars?) that rattled by, raggedly silver, windblown. The miniature groundscape at his feet struck him, rather suddenly, as too wintery and prosaic to bear. He lifted his heavy head and looked up. There it was. A pale aqua light, translucent, a swatch of veil, star-high, no, lower than the stars, but high, higher than a spaceship hovering above the treetops. It may or may not have been slowly unfurling, densest at its center, trailing off at its edges into lacy spurs and spirals. Barrett thought that it must be a freakish southerly appearance of the aurora borealis, not exactly a common sight over Central Park, but as he stood--a pedestrian in coat and scarf, saddened and disappointed but still regular as regular, standing on a stretch of lamp-lit ice--as he looked up at the light, as he thought it was probably all over the news--as he wondered whether to stand where he was, privately surprised, or go running after someone else for corroboration--there were other people, the dark cutouts of them, right there, arrayed across the Great Lawn ... In his uncertainty, his immobility, standing stolid in Timberlands, it came to him. He believed--he knew--that as surely as he was looking up at the light, the light was looking back down at him. No. Not looking. Apprehending . As he imagined a whale might apprehend a swimmer, with a grave and regal and utterly unfrightened curiosity. He felt the light's attention, a tingle that ran through him, a minute electrical buzz; a mild and pleasing voltage that permeated him, warmed him, seemed perhaps ever so slightly to illuminate him, so that he was brighter than he'd been, just a shade or two; phosphorescent, but pinkly so, humanly so, nothing of swamp gas about it, just a gathering of faint blood-light that rose to the surface of his skin. And then, neither slowly nor quickly, the light dissipated. It waned into a scattering of pale blue sparks that seemed somehow animated, like the playful offspring of a placid and titanic parent. Then they, too, winked out, and the sky was as it had been, as it has always been. He remained standing for a while, watching the sky as if it were a television screen that had suddenly gone blank and might, just as mysteriously, turn itself on again. The sky, however, continued to offer only its compromised darkness (the lights of New York City gray the nocturnal blackness), and the sparse pinpoints of stars powerful enough to be seen at all. Finally, he continued on his way home, to Beth and Tyler, to the modest comforts of the apartment in Bushwick. What else, after all, was he supposed to do? Copyright © 2014 by Mare Vaporum Corp Excerpted from The Snow Queen: A Novel by Michael Cunningham All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.