Michael Cunningham's latest novel shares a title with Hans Christian Anderson's strange, icy fairy tale: The Snow Queen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The connections, however, are tenuous — while a character gets a shard of ice in his eye, it doesn't twist him into evil the way it does for little Kai in Anderson's tale. While a young woman is goodhearted and redemptive like Anderson's Gerda, she doesn't get the chance to save anybody, not really. Anderson's story deals with good vs. evil, but Cunningham is more concerned with God vs. not-God. In fact, evil rarely comes into play in Cunningham's novel. No one is a bad guy. Everyone is simply lost, questioning, afraid of something that may in fact be life itself.
38-year-old Barrett has just been broken up with for the millionth time when he sees a mysterious light in the sky during a walk in Central Park. The light sees him, watches him "with a grave and regal and utterly un-frightened curiosity." Gifted, lonely Barrett isn't adverse to the idea that he's seen Heaven winking at him, that the light is a portent of something amazing, and spends the rest of the novel questioning its significance. He's no skeptic; he's a tenuous believer.
Barrett lives in skeevy 2004-era Bushwick with his older brother, Tyler, a failing songwriter with a bad coke habit, and Tyler's fiancée, the ethereal Beth, who's dying of cancer. Tyler spends his days trying to write the perfect wedding song for Beth, raging against George Bush's reelection, and lying to everyone about doing coke. Barrett spends his days wondering about the existence of something beyond this literal earth and becoming graciously resigned to the fact that he'll never do anything great with his life and that's entirely okay. Beth wastes away, loving Tyler and Barrett as though she's married to them both. Peripheral characters, like the 50-something Liz and her much younger drug addict lover, make up the rest of this ragtag Bushwick family. They're decently cool but too old to be bohemian; they live among poverty, drugs, and ratty furniture but they're not young enough to fetishize that lifestyle anymore.
Where the novel truly sings is in its exploration of love. Cunningham, master of the lyric, brings his significant emotional strength to the question of what it means to love another person, and we get not just beautiful observations, but real revelations. The relationship between Tyler and Beth is delicately rendered, neither dipping into the morbid nor shying away from the fact that Beth is dying. Beth is all paleness and the smell of medicine and translucent fabric, but her relationship with Tyler is so tangible that it keeps her from being just the "dying bride," as we see in this passage:
...Beth who in no way resembles any of Tyler's previous girlfriends, and with whom he'd fallen so immediately in love that he resembled some captive animal, fed for years on what its keepers believed to be its natural diet and then suddenly, one day, by accident, given what it actually ate, in the wild.
And Barrett, the always-broken-up-with Barrett, finally comes to a revelation about love that's not new, but poignant in its simple truth. Barrett is dating a new man, and can't stop wondering when he'll be left behind, when suddenly — with a quick sideways glance at his lover's facial expression — Barrett realizes that he's dating not an archetype that will one day leave him, but a person who's been hurt and betrayed, too. "Who knows what strange stories he's been told by other men?" Barret wonders at the end of the book. "Who can tell how fearful he is?"
The much-praised politics of the book left me cold. The book is set during 2004, 2006, and 2008, all tempestuous political times when election outcomes were painfully uncertain and this country was still struggling to understand that it wasn't just America anymore, but a "post 9/11 America." It's an interesting era in which to set a novel, rife with conflict, but all we hear of the political environment is a series of rants from Tyler. And Tyler is smart and passionate, sure, but he's also on coke and driving his friends crazy. He's obsessed with the state of the union, he won't talk about anything else, and he's convinced that the world will end if the Republican candidate (first Bush, then McCain) gets the vote.
As a result, the complicated and controversial politics of the time aren't infused into the novel's core, they only pop up when Tyler — often on coke — decides to yell about them. The effect reads more like weirdly anachronistic propaganda than interesting observations about a turbulent time in American political history. (Note that anyone who's reading a Cunningham novel probably doesn't need to be convinced that Sarah Palin would have made a terrible vice-president. So why do we need to hear, time and again, that Sarah Palin would have made a terrible vice-president? There's plenty of potential, but it all comes down to — and fails to transcend — one man's political ranting.)
Similarly, it's vaguely interesting to read about Bushwick in 2006 and Williamsburg in 2008, but again, we know how the story ends. It starts with a "g" and ends with "entrification," doesn't it? These aspects of The Snow Queen are too reliant on an irritating, knowing irony; e.g., "PSST! I know you're reading a novel, but in real life, Obama becomes president and Bushwick becomes white and hipster! Isn't that DROLL?"
I also worry that Cunningham — whose other books, notably Flesh and Blood and The Hours, were heartbreakingly lyrical — has supped from the cup of George Saunders. You know, that style of "cool bro" writing, full of parentheticals and slick jokes that half-disguise the deep emotional underpinnings of the story. I love both authors, but never the twain should meet, you know? The writing in The Snow Queen has an odd twang, as though Cunningham is trying too hard to write for the cool kids, the ones that are all, "Ugh, yeah, Bushwick is so gentrified, it's such a shame." Consider this line: "Boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Fuck you, F. Scott Fitzgerald." That's just not funny. It's bro-y in a way that I didn't expect from Cunningham, like a joke in a bad comedy, where the punchline is entirely reliant on the curse word.
Another example: in 2008, Tyler wonders, "600-count Egyptian cotton, what even is that?" That syntax — "What even is that?" — is so specific to today's crop of Millennials. It's hard to believe that a 40-something in 2008 would ever string together words that way.
The mega-themes of The Snow Queen are fearless and beautifully imagined from multiple angles — death and love and love beyond death and loving someone to death and God and something-that-might-be-like-a-god and is-there-a-God. I just wish the writing had allowed these themes to be borne along in its current (thank you, F. Scott Fitzgerald). But the writing stops to second-guess itself; it tries to position itself on the right side of history, and it angles for cool kid appeal. And everyone knows the cool kids don't dig writing like that.