The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham
Claire Danes, interestingly enough, narrates 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Cunningham’s latest novel. The choice seems a bit odd as most of the narrative is from the point of view of two brothers. Still, Danes is good enough, if a little on the flat side. Perhaps because Cunningham’s prose is ever so lyrical, she was told to use that affected monotone poetry-speak; regardless, I’ll stick with good enough.
But let’s get back to the language: if you turn to any random page (or choose any track, depending on how you decide to take it in), you’ll find no shortage of breathtaking, sumptuous, ravishing sentences. You’ll go back, you’ll re-read, you’ll hit that 15-seconds-back button just to hear the words ever so effortlessly tumble together …
Page 4: “This last parting, however, was his first to be conveyed by text, the farewell appearing, uninvited, unanticipated, on a screen no bigger than a bar of hotel soap.”
Page 67: “A droplet, long accumulating, falls from the rim of the faucet into a soaking saucepan …”
Page 119: “The room may be an object-purgatory, but it is not subject to the junk-store odors of dust and old varnish mixed with that mournful not-quite-clean essence that seems to attach itself to anything that has gone too long unwanted.”
When has being dumped, a leaky faucet, and a cluttered space ever gotten such rhapsodic respect?
And yet … as flowingly faultless as the novel’s language might be, the story those strung-together words create is … well … lacking. Getting through less than 300 pages (slightly under seven hours if stuck in the ears) feels like a tedious responsibility at best. Barrett, the younger, rootless, gay brother keeps getting dumped. He lives with his brother Tyler and Tyler’s soon-to-be-wife Beth. Tyler is a coke addict musician trying to write Beth his best song ever for their wedding; Beth is dying of cancer. Barrett is haunted by a mysterious light he saw in the Central Park sky; Tyler is plagued by an ice crystal that lodged into his eye that same night. Life goes on for the damaged (self-absorbed much?) brothers as each searches for some sort of knowable meaning.
And I think that’s it. Obviously, I won’t tell you what happens to them, what middling epiphanies they experience, but even if I did, would you care? How such gorgeous prose can beget such a bland story is mystifying. I couldn’t let go of the hope that Barrett’s mythical light might finally reach me and I would comprehend and bask in the glory … but nope, I guess I must have blinked and missed that green flash.