Michael Cunningham writes some of the most beautiful prose in contemporary American fiction, and his gorgeous way with words is on full display in his new novel, The Snow Queen. If Cunningham seems at times to appreciate his exquisite sensibility a little too much, that tendency is balanced by a sharp eye for the particulars of life in 21st-century New York. His characters roam the sidewalks of grungy bohemian Brooklyn and observe the relentless process of gentrification; life-changing experiences take place on the Great Lawn and the Staten Island Ferry. The slice of society he depicts is narrow, but its denizens grapple with the universal basics: family, mortality, love, ambition.
Taking its title from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Snow Queen too tells a story of filial devotion, although the “feral knowledge of each other” that links Barrett and Tyler Meeks is considerably more complicated and adult than the attachment between Andersen’s siblings. Their Snow Queen is Mom (Cunningham’s novels frequently contain a scary mother), who conveyed to each son at a young age the sense that there was something not quite right about his brother, and it was up to him to protect the other.
Their mother is long dead—dispatched via the “comic tragedy” of being struck by lightning on a golf course—but as Barrett and Tyler warily approach middle age they’re doing their best to live up to her ambivalent expectations. Tyler is “an unknown musician at forty-three … who knew, at the beginning, just how gifted you’ve got to be?” He finds his sense of self-worth in caring for his cancer-stricken girlfriend, Beth: “Here is something he can do, and do well, as the music flicks teasingly around him, just out of reach.”
Thirty-eight-year-old Barrett, the brilliant one who went to Yale, has abandoned a Ph.D. program and various business ventures with various boyfriends to wind up as “another of New York’s just-barelies,” who can’t even afford his own apartment and is living with Tyler and Beth in Bushwick. “The building of a high-profile career is not required,” he tells himself, which presumably consoles him as he lays out trendy, overpriced vintage clothing in the Williamsburg boutique founded by Beth and her best friend, Liz.
The intricate maneuvers within this quartet, surrounded by a deftly drawn group of secondary characters, are a lot more interesting than the mysterious metaphysical event that (sort of) propels the plot. The book opens with Barrett walking through Central Park brooding over the break-up of his latest transient romance—by text message; that’s how young and indifferent this lover is. Looking wearily at the sky, he sees “a pale aqua light, translucent, a swatch of veil, star-high … apprehending [him] with a grave and regal and utterly unfrightened curiosity.”
Barrett will spend the rest of the novel’s four-year course, from November 2004 to November 2008, pondering the meaning of this apparition. He slips into churches, he wonders if the light has anything to do with Beth’s miraculous remission, but he’s so hesitant to ascribe any transcendent significance to his epiphany that it lacks emotional or intellectual force. Cunningham is better on the texture of daily life than on Big Subjects; Beth’s feelings about her engagement with death are also voiced with such reticence as to be oddly weightless in comparison to a single, sardonic authorial comment: “The mortally ill can be rendered more, rather than less, irritating by the authority impending demise confers upon them. Who knew?”
In a highly wrought narrative that teeters on the brink of pretentiousness (and sometimes falls over the edge), Cunningham’s sharp humor always comes as a relief. He provides a brisk running gag about Tyler’s chronic expressions of liberal outrage and lousy political judgment. (Tyler is sure George Bush will lose in 2004 and John McCain will win in 2008.) A brilliant party scene captures with stinging accuracy the conversation-extinguishing loquacity of an overbearing guest, while Barrett thinks, “God save us from people who think they’re smarter than they actually are.”
Yet the author is tender with his characters even when they’re obnoxious or dumb. And he’s particularly tender with Tyler, a self-deluding drug addict who is also that quintessential Cunningham protagonist, the artist struggling with his muse. As in his Pulitzer prize-winner, The Hours, Cunningham writes with specificity and intimate knowledge about the desire “to make something … marvelous, something miraculous.” Failure is not a threat inevitably overcome; it happens. The wedding song Tyler composes for Beth is, he knows, “more sentimental than searing.” His wincing analysis of the song’s weaknesses gives a much truer portrait of the artistic process than the gauzy romanticism we usually get. Art is Cunningham’s deepest faith, the Big Subject he approaches with a passion and conviction notably lacking in his tentative treatment of spirituality.
Art may yet save Tyler, though a more sinister possibility also beckons, and Barrett may have found a lasting love to loosen the fraternal bond both brothers know is holding him back. But there aren’t any final answers in Cunningham’s hauntingly inconclusive novel, which fittingly enough, closes with a question.