At a special event curated by novelist Mona Simpson at the Hammer Museum in Westwood last week, Michael Cunningham (Specimen Days, The Hours, A Home at the End of the World) gave the audience an early holiday present: a reading from his as-yet unpublished, untitled next novel. The passage was enthralling, and he cut it off expertly right before a revelation that “changes everything.”
Cunningham has been away from novel writing for the past couple of years, co-scripting the adaptation of Evening with the book’s author Susan Minot, developing a television series, and writing a biopic of Dusty Springfield to star Nicole Kidman, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in the big-screen version of The Hours.
Cunningham doesn’t see his work in showbiz as slumming, however.
“I love the movies. And TV,” he said, citing especially HBO’s critically lauded The Wire. “I never for a second thought of writing for the movies or television as a lesser form. Would I rather watch a great movie than read a perfectly adequate first novel? Yes. One of the big things that’s happening in aesthetics is in the blurring of boundaries,” with poets or novelists working in other forms.
This malleability has marked Cunningham’s fiction writing as well, as Simpson noted each of his novels is different from his others.
“As a writer, I want to feel a little bit incompetent, a little bit out of my depth,” he said. Putative work resides in the gap between what an artist wants to do and what he or she is able to do. The minute I start to feel competent, the minute I start to feel that I know what I’m doing, I know I’m in trouble.”
Where Cunningham is consistently competent, however (to understate it hugely), is, as one audience member noted, in finding beauty in the everyday.
“Any writer learns over time what his or her natural scope and scale is, where your eye goes in a scene,” he said. “And I do look for something largish in something that appears ordinary.”
He borrowed this technique from the authors who have inspired his own writing: Woolf (The Hours), Walt Whitman (Specimen Days), and James Joyce, whose work makes an appearance in the passage he read that night. Before Woolf and Joyce especially, he said, “Literature had been mostly about heroics and large events. Okay, most of us aren’t involved in events so obviously cataclysmic. Most of us spend a lot of time driving down roads.”
The modernists asked themselves, “What if we as writers were to insist that every life is an epic-sized life? What if we as writers were to stop looking around for lives worthy as a novel but argue that every life is worthy of a novel?” The result of this line of thought, Cunningham said, was “two of the greatest book of the last hundred years”—Mrs. Dalloway, epitomized in The Hours, and Ulysses.
“It’s great and hugely important to look out at the universe and see so far that we can see billions of years into the past. It’s equally important and not all that different to split the atom and look into the subatomic world. Ultimately it’s the same thing.”
Fiction’s dramatization of everyday lives, Cunningham ultimately argued, is its greatest strength.
“Maybe the way in which fiction is most indispensable, the reason we still need it, is it’s the best medium to communicate what it’s like to be someone other than yourself. There is nothing to take the place of fiction’s ability to put you in the mind and body of another person. It’s a subtle and hugely political act because the more we understand what it’s like to be someone else, the harder it is to amend the Constitution [to ban same-sex marriage] or bomb the fuck out of a country. This is fiction’s most essential contribution. Without fiction, I don’t know where we’d go for that.”
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