The Snow Queen
By Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
258 pages, $26
By Michael D. Langan
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Michael Cunningham, author of six novels and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for “The Hours,” borrows the title of his new novel from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Remember her? She sits among a castle’s empty endless halls of snow at the center of a lake called “the mirror of reason.”
Cunningham may be on thin ice with his Snow Queen trope.
The novel has to do with love’s loss. Reason is defeated. Passion overcomes faithfulness. Sinful man longs for redemption and affirmation – all the while not trying too hard to change one’s life.
Start at the beginning: the year is 2004; the venue, Central Park. Enter walking, 38-year-old Barrett Meeks, a gay man who has lost his latest love, a Canadian Ph.D. who has casually dumped Meeks via a brief e-mail text. Barrett has turned, the author writes, by slow degrees, “from a young wizard into a tired middle-aged magician, summoning the doves out of his hat for the ten thousandth performance…”, what Cunningham calls one of the “just-barelies” in New York City.
Bothered, Barrett is interrupted by a vision – the appearance of a translucent light – as he looks at the sky. Barrett doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but this luminescence makes him wonder if he might be wrong.
The “… light was looking back down on him. He believed – he knew – that as surely as he was looking up at the light, the light was looking back down on him. No. Not looking. Apprehending.” He wonders what this “celestial annunciation” means. Barrett, the author tells us, had been “a perverse, wrong-headed Catholic even in his grade school days …”
Cunningham continues, “On the night of the apparition, Barrett … crossed the Great Lawn and was nearing the floodlit, geological, glacial mass of the Metropolitan Museum. He was crunching over ice-coated silver-gray snow, taking a shortcut to the number 6 train, dripped on by tree branches, glad at least to be going home …” even though he felt broken by this latest breakup.
Across town, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Tyler, his older brother, a musician, struggles with a cocaine problem. Coke is a “quick suck of harsh magic,” for him. Even so, or perhaps because, Tyler’s not having any luck writing a song for Beth, his fiancée, who’s got serious health problems. He begins again, “To walk the frozen halls at night/To find you on your throne of ice/ To melt this sliver in my heart/Oh, that’s not what I came for/No, that’s not what I came for.”
“Hmm. It’s crap, is it?” he asks himself. “The trouble is he’s determined to write a wedding song that won’t be all treacle and devotion…” the author comments in counterpoint.
Symbols of someone or something caring are everywhere. It’s snowing in Tyler and Beth’s bedroom. It is really snowing: they’ve left the window open and “skeins of snow blowing around the room are part of his dream, a manifestation of icy and divine mercy.” Tyler awakens and closes the window. He notices the junk that Beth brings home, treasures that she finds on the street. One item is a life-sized snow globe.
Tyler looks out the window at a quiet slum-neighborhood morning winter scene. Here, Cunningham can be supremely capable of something akin to what Yeats called “automatic writing.” That is, writing beautiful prose of even ugly scenes with a magical ease.
For example, “… the concrete façade of the empty warehouse (upon which the ghost of the word ‘concrete’ is still emblazoned, although grown so faint it’s as if the building is dreaming its own name) and the still-slumbering street where the neon Q in the LIQUOR sign winks and buzzes like a distress flare.”
Later, Barrett is on his way to work as a clerk at a shop selling “merch,” junk among the genuine. He stops in front of the “brown-sternness” of St. Anne’s Armenian Church.
Inside, he sees “a scattering of parishioners, a dozen at most, kneel dutifully in the mocha-colored pews. The priest raises chalice and wafer. The faithful rise painfully to their feet, (they must be subject to all manner of knee and hip complaints), and begin their trudge to the altar, to receive the host.” Blake stands outside watching, snowflakes lingering on his coat, before vanishing.
By Christmas,2006, Beth’s cancer miraculously is cured. She’s regained her “luminous pinkness” and gained 23 pounds. Her hair, however, doesn’t make it back unscarred. “It looks neither dead nor alive.”
Months later, Beth has a relapse and dies. Even before her death, Tyler has begun a sexual relationship with Liz, the owner of the shop where Barrett works. A couple years pass and Barrett serially works his way to his latest love, Sam, complaining about the Bush administration along the way.
Suddenly for the reader, these experiences are neither cerebral nor very caring. Excessive detail buggers the bigger picture. Life is observed being ground out in small pieces by “just-barelies” looking for light. The novel risks turning bitter and nattering.
“The Snow Queen” is a novel about justification, feeling that one’s life means more than the sum of its meanness. That is why the Meeks brothers are looking for what T.S. Eliot in his essay on Hamlet called an “objective correlative.” In nonliterary terms this is an idea looking to provide explicit access or verification of traditionally inexplicable concepts. The brothers want to be affirmed and receive approval from a power beyond their ken.
In the end Tyler reflects about his brother: “Heaven winked at you, right? Maybe it did. Or maybe it was just an airplane and a cloud …. But if heaven winks at anybody, it’s probably the less-than-conspicuous seekers; … The universe only winks at the ones no one will believe … Revelation is offered only to those too poor and lowly to be considered candidates.”
Barrett and Tyler want to know that their lives have value. They want to be loved for who they are – replete with warts. Finally Tyler says, or imagines he says, “Hey there, Goddess. Come on in.”
As a reader, I’m not certain that the Goddess, melting in the wings, is waiting on such a tawdry invitation. In a book that might have reached to the heavens, it spends too much time on “just-barelies” examining their navels in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer of contemporary fiction.