Barrett Meeks, the central character of Michael Cunningham’s latest novel, The Snow Queen, is in search of something, on a quest, in need of a center that will hold. I get that.
I have lived a life marked by almost crippling existential doubt; I was in crisis a’la Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus from early adolescence; despairing, angsty, tortured by my status as other and outsider, finding most everything absurd and very little to be authentic. I have longed for some sign, some miraculous message from some ephemeral but all-powerful beyond that would prove to me there was some point, some reason, some logic — no matter how indecipherable, incomprehensible, cryptic, nebulous, or abstruse — just to have that sign, some light to guide me or, lacking that, at least to offer me some little hope.
Mr. Cunningham’s gift for lyricism is virtually un-equalled among current authors. His prose is incisive, penetrating, full of one after another trenchant observation of perfect clarity. He is not just a writer, but a conjurer, invoking into being whole worlds and populations with his lexical magic. One reads his novels slowly in order to fully take in the beauty of the prose.
In The Snow Queen, he has given us another glorious construct of enchanting language, incanted to tell the tale of a group of urban, middle-aged children of privilege, struggling to find meaning in a world where cynicism and pessimism are assumed. Barrett, having been dumped by a younger man (and again, I get that) is walking through Central Park when the vision occurs. Barrett — having failed to live up to his potential in the real world (again, oh man, do I get this) lives with his older brother, Tyler, and Tyler’s wife-to-be, Beth, who has terminal cancer. Satellites to this emotional menage-a-trois are Liz, owner of a trendy store in which Barrett and Beth both work selling the monied-hipster class over-priced clothing and obscure trinketry and tchotchkes. And, too, there is Liz’s much younger, ephemerally gorgeous, drug loving inamorato, Andrew for whom Barrett nurses a huge and implausible lust — one more thing I get.
Little happens. This isn’t a novel so much about the arc of action, but, rather, a novel of interior journeys; those events that happen in each individual’s heart and head. In those individual journeys are addressed many of the major themes of the current zeitgeist. Listen:
And maybe — maybe — love will arrive, and remain. That could happen. There’s no obvious reason for love’s skittishness (though there is as well no obvious reason for the behavior of neutrons). It’s all about patience. Isn’t it? Patience, and the refusal to abandon hope. The refusal to be daunted by, say, a five-line farewell text.
I wish you happiness and luck in the future. xxx
That from a man with whom Barrett had imagined, had allowed himself to imagine, the buzz of soul-contact, once or twice at least (that rainy afternoon in the bathtub when he whispered the O’Hara poem into the man’s ear, which was edged with fine blond down; that night in the Adirondacks, with tree branches fingering the window, when the man had said, as if sharing a secret, “That’s an acacia tree”).
You continue, right? You see an impossible light, which goes out again. You believe that a bathtub in the West Village, on a Tuesday afternoon, has presented itself as an actual destination, not just another stop along the way.
This, Barrett Meeks, is your work. You witness, and compile. You persevere. You have, after all, made a significant discovery: The conjuring of a big splash, the building of a high-profile career, is not required, not even of those gifted with greater-than-average powers of mind. It’s nowhere in the contract. God (whoever She is) does not need you, does not need anyone, to arrive, at the end, in the cloud field, with its remote golden spires, bearing an armload of earthly accomplishments.
Now that is some fantastic writing. And it’s just half a page in the middle of the book, a book in which I marked and noted so many pages and paragraphs and sentences, I have put off writing this for days because I could not decide what to include and because anything I wrote, posted in proximity to even the worst sentence by Mr. Cunningham — which is an oxymoron — will seem puerile at best.
And, this is about me, right? And how I, even with my documented “greater-than-average powers of mind” have failed to make a life, failed to find love, foolishly chosen time after time and, all the while, been paralyzed by the apprehension that none of it actually made a fuck’s worth of difference anyway, did it? I didn’t get a sign.
Unless, perhaps, could Michael Cunningham be speaking directly to me? The voice in this novel sounds not unlike me, only, with better syntax and superior metaphors. This character, too, conflates Frank O’Hara poems with love. When first Cunningham wrote of reading O’Hara’s Ave Maria with a much younger lover, I gasped. I have done that. With that very poem. And when Cunningham talked of a pedantic fool who went on at ridiculous length about Jane Bowles as if he had discovered her; I gasped. I have been (regularly) that fool. And this:
Sam is not Barrett’s type (although Barrett would, until they met, have insisted that he had no “type” at all). Sam is neither young nor briskly, foolishly optimistic; he is not a broad-shouldered pugilist; he is not anyone Eakins would have wanted to paint.
Emphasis mine. I have somewhere in the neighborhood of ten books of Eakins paintings and photographs, a biography or two, and a fascination with his fascination with a particular type of young man. I get it.
Love, it seems, arrives not only unannounced, but so accidentally, so randomly, as to make you wonder why you, why anyone, believes even fleetingly in laws of cause and effect.
I get that. I so get that.
And, finally, last one I promise (please buy this book and read all the others I couldn’t find room to quote):
People are more than you think they are. And they’re less, as well. The trick lies in negotiating your way between the two.
Holy shit. Boy, do I EVER get that. If ever there has been written a more succinct or accurate exegesis of the primary challenge and meaning of life, I defy you to produce it. Mr. Cunningham is a treasure, this book is his latest gift to us, to those of us who are still asking for more, still asking why, still waiting for something we can’t quite name, define, or, in fact, believe in.
This book, it gave me some hope. Thank you, Mr. Cunningham. Thank you.