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How do you categorize the relationships in Michael Cunningham’s novels? Is a brother just a brother or is something more implied? What about the husband and wife with their intimate circle of friends: is the pairing more significant than the group or is it the other way around? If every writer has an obsession, that one thing he goes back to time after time, you only need look at Cunningham’s gorgeous first (and under-appreciated) novel, A Home at the End of the World, to get a sense of what fascinates him. Two young men, one straight (Bobby) and one gay (Jonathan), form a relationship with the bohemian Claire, with whom Jonathan has planned to raise a child, but it is Claire’s sexual relationship with Bobby that results in her pregnancy. In Cunningham’s last book, the 2010 By Nightfall, a heterosexual couple’s marriage is jeopardized when the husband is seduced by the wife’s much younger brother in a way that can’t be explained by sexuality alone. (Flashbacks to the husband and his gay brother, who died of AIDS, highlight another relationship that rejects easy definition.) And now we have The Snow Queen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), one of Cunningham’s best, in which Beth and Tyler share their lives with Tyler’s younger gay brother, Barrett. Or is it Beth who shares her life with Barrett and Tyler?
The Snow Queen begins mysteriously. While walking through Central Park “a celestial light” appears to Barrett Meeks, four days after he has “been mauled, once again, by love.” Just what this light means, Barrett doesn’t understand, but there is something otherworldly about the “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.” At first, Barrett tells no one about his vision, including Tyler, the older brother he doesn’t physically resemble but with whom he shares an “inscrutable genetic intention.” Barrett and Tyler possess a “certain feral knowledge of each other” and are “never mysterious, one to another, even when they’re mysterious to everyone else.”
The Snow Queen is bookended by the elections 2004 and 2008, when George Bush eked out a win over John Kerry and Barack Obama trounced John McCain. The election means the most to Tyler, a drug-addicted progressive activist in his early forties who struggles to write a song for his fiancé Beth to sing on their wedding day. Beth, who has been weakened by cancer and chemotherapy, has been cared for so intently by the brothers that Barrett refers to Beth as “my wife, too.” Also in the mix is their fifty-two year old friend Liz, who has an attraction for younger men, yet has never experienced a love she imagines as “crossing over, inhabiting another person and letting him inhabit you.”
In an interview with the Paris Review (October 14, 2010), Cunningham talked about his literary influences:
I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from reading the modernists, particularly Woolf and Joyce, who insisted that fiction depict the 99.9 percent of the population who are not Gatsby or Nostromo or David Copperfield; who insisted that part of the novelist’s job is to ferret out the epic story of outwardly unextraordinary people, who are of course extraordinary to themselves.
The most evident influence of the modernists on Cunningham is in The Hours, his Pulitzer Prize winning rendering of Mrs. Dalloway. Yet while the title to his new novel references Hans Christian Andersen, echoes of Joyce resound in The Snow Queen. Like Joyce, Cunningham uses language, especially in the early parts of the novel, that almost demands to be read aloud:
He felt the light’s attention, a tinge 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.
Of course, there are many authors whose prose can be better appreciated spoken. But not many seem as influenced by Joyce’s repetition of words and phrases as Cunningham is (“…permeated him, warmed him, seemed perhaps ever so slightly to illuminate him…” or “…but pinkly so, humanly so”). Cunningham’s nod to Joyce is clearer when he describes Barrett and Tyler’s father, in his devotion to his first wife, as “the middle aged boy who’d sit under her window in the rain until he caught his death.” Cunningham’s words couldn’t be a more succinct definition of Michael Furey in the last story of Dubliners, “The Dead.” Finally, it’s nearly impossible not to remember Gabrielle, at the end of that same story by Joyce, when Tyler considers the shifting relationships in his life, as well as what he perceives to be a changed world (he’s convinced of a McCain victory). Like Gabrielle, Tyler expands his vision beyond the small room where he stands alone by the window, to “ten thousands of feet” above him.
How fitting that in these ten thousand feet above him is a plane carrying Liz to San Francisco, for ultimately Cunningham’s novel is about these amorphous connections called relationships. They expand and contract, bring in and push away their participants, and, most of all, eschew definitions. “Love, it would seem, has arrived,” thinks Tyler when Barrett couples with Sam, a professor of nineteenth century literature at Princeton. In The Snow Queen, Cunningham reminds that no matter the form in which love arrives, we should consider ourselves lucky.
The Snow Queen
By Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374266325, 258 pp.