On Michael Cunningham's new novel, "Day", how artists confront the pandemic, and whether anyone survives their childhood.
Day, Michael Cunningham (2024)
There’s a handful of things that everybody has an opinion on, and few are more contentious than what does or doesn’t screw up children. Just when it seemed no topic could broach the ever-widening societal divides, school closures made many of us – on the left and the right, dues-paying party members and the politically nomadic – come together in wondering if there were downsides to keeping children segregated from each other. That kumbaya moment of parental ecumenism lasted about five minutes, of course, before worrying about school closures meant you were willing to sacrifice your child to COVID, while concern about schools opening meant you couldn’t wait to lace up your jackboots and start trampling on the freedom of children.
The frontlines of these battles aren’t the pundit pulpits on the news or the comments sections of YouTube; the rubber of ideology hits the road of reality in the homes of families trying to ensure their kids turn out as halfway decent members of society or, at the very least, not sociopaths. The adults in Michael Cunningham’s latest novel, Day, are no different. There are three adults in one home here, two of whom (Isabel and Dan) are the parents of Violet and Nathan, five and ten years old respectively. The third grown-up is their uncle Robbie who, despite facing eviction from the crowded home, is loved by the rest of the family perhaps more than they love each other.
Robbie’s eviction is necessary for Nathan to have his own room – Robbie’s. This is prompted by the anxiety of what conflicts, if not sexual confusion, might occur if their pubescent son continues sharing a room with a little sister who recently asked “what Nathan’s penis is for”. That’s just the start of it; as the novel progresses, we see just how preoccupied each adult is with not doing or saying anything that will pervert the children’s development. They suffer, in Robbie’s words, the “ongoing doubt about whether (when) one of them will make the crucial mistake, the one the children will carry with them” into their adult lives. Notice the definite article: the mistake – as inevitable as in Larkin’s poetic recognition that “they fuck you up, your mum and dad”.
All of this is in part one of Day, which sets each of its three sections on April 5th, first in 2019, then in 2020, and finally in 2021. The pre-pandemic section is the novel’s strongest. Cunningham is at his best when shuffling combinations of his characters, so that we see their multitudinous nature bloom with each new conversation or dispute. The dialogue between siblings is expertly rendered – topics shift in ways that, to outsiders, seem to follow the logic of a non-sequitur, but that are following the anfractuous path of a conversation that has run through their whole lives together. Each discursive shift is motivated by ancient subtext, adult conversations determined by disputes and in-jokes forged in childhood.
There is some graceful prose here, including the opening that delicately paints dawn over the East River, evoking the opening of Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (more on which later). But there are also some duff moments where determining whose POV we are in becomes a confused untangling of clauses. One of the more egregious is: “Nathan has, for as long as Robbie can remember, felt like an outsider...” Whose interiority are we in? It seems, confusingly, like Robbie’s, from within Nathan’s perspective. The sentence, written with greater clarity, might be: “Nathan has, for as long as Robbie can remember, seemed like an outsider”. The difference between seemed and felt is the difference between comprehension and frustrated re-reading.
Part two of Day uses the COVID pandemic to separate characters in ways that are engineered with exquisite craft, yet left me unsatisfied, like an artisanal cake made without sugar. As each character finds a bubble of life to occupy, Cunningham delivers a variety of wonderfully executed miscommunications, from emails and letters written but unread, to words thought but not spoken. In various ways, he shows that there is nothing social about distancing. However, the threads of the novel begin to fray as they unwind from each other. Though Cunningham is clever in how he conveys isolation, he’s also writing against his greatest strength: characters interacting. The few scenes during lockdown where people actually speak with each other – whether by text or in person – underscore what’s lacking in the other scenes.
It also becomes clear in part two that the stakes are remarkably low. Beyond the vague anxiety that someone might succumb to the virus, the stakes of Day never rise beyond the level of the “oops” with which Robbie notes that he’s absent-mindedly revealed a con he’s engaged in. The family are essentially living with prolonged ennui, and the conflicts they face (divorce, career change, moving house) threaten them with... a bit more ennui. Cunningham’s evident affection for his characters prevents his novel from descending into trite class satire, but it also keeps him from allowing anything truly awful to happen. The worst thing that happens here occurs “off screen”. Like the adults regarding the children in Day, Cunningham takes a paternal stance towards his characters, loathe to let anything damage them too much.
In an interview, Cunningham asked how anyone could write a contemporary novel without addressing the pandemic. Well, perhaps, but who said his novel needed to be contemporary? He might have done better to push the setting back a decade and continue with the non-COVID novel he’d started before the virus swept the world. In that same interview, the journalist writes:
“About 13 years ago, when discussing in an interview how [the AIDS crisis] impacted his creative life, [Cunningham] said when you survive something like a war or an epidemic, your sense of life and of the world is altered irrevocably. All you have seen – the death and the dying – becomes part of the material you have been given, and you try to negotiate it as a writer.”
Cunningham has undoubtedly done something important with this idea in the final section of Day, but in a manner that didn’t necessitate the COVID pandemic. In fact, that crisis might be too large for such a slim book to handle with any dexterity or examine with real perspicuity. At times in Day, the pandemic feels like an overlay, a translucent layer that sits on top of the novel Cunningham meant to write. The “death and the dying” that become “part of the material you have been given” are distant here, often totally absent, except for a single crucial tragedy that could have come about without recourse to COVID.
The pandemic is never wound into the fabric of the story in the way that its forebears and influences are. Just as Woolf haunts Cunningham’s The Hours, George Eliot can be glimpsed between the lines of Day – and she is sometimes explicitly rendered in the text. Midway through the book, Robbie closes a letter to Isabel with a line from The Mill on the Floss, which could act as a kind of Rosetta Stone to the novel’s primary theme:
“They had entered the thorny wilderness, and the golden gates of their childhood had for ever closed behind them.”
Introducing the pandemic to the story inevitably raises the question of whether our characters will survive the virus, which undercuts the more compelling question posed by Robbie: “Do you think we ever really survive our childhoods?” Day suggests it might not be the job of parents to prevent their kids suffering in the first place, but to cushion them from the fallout of inevitable tragedy. It’s only a shame that the novel waits for its final pages to give any of them something more to survive than marital stultification and career boredom.
Perhaps, in the end, Day is inadvertently the best metaphor for the stages of a lacklustre life: it begins by promising so much, muddles its way through a midpoint, and ends with mild disappointment.