Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Snow Queen, by Michael Cunningham

The Snow Queen occurs in three "acts": the first takes place on the eve of the 2004 election, the second on New Year's Eve 2006, the third shortly before the 2008 election. In the first, Barrett Meeks, whose latest lover has just broken up with him via text, is trudging home through Central Park when he sees a strange aqua light in the sky. Not only is the light unusual in appearance, he is positive that the light was "looking back down at him." He tells no one about the light, but does begin stopping by a Catholic church on his way to work each day, simply sitting in the back pews for a few minutes. Barrett lives with his brother Tyler, a bartender in his early 40s, still struggling to become a musician, and Tyler's soon-to-be wife Beth, who is terminally ill. Tyler is trying to write a song for his wedding to Beth, a song that he has incredibly high expectations for (see Favorite passages below); feeling unable to approach his expectations, he turns to cocaine for inspiration.

In act two, Beth, who started to go into remission in November 2004 (was the light a miraculous manifestation of some kind?), and Tyler are hosting a New Year's Eve party, which includes Beth's friend Liz, who is also Barrett's boss at a small boutique in Brooklyn, her much lover Andrew (on whom Barrett has had a crush for two years), and three other random friends. Under the influence of cocaine stolen from Tyler's stash, Barrett tells Andrew and Liz about the light he saw over a year earlier. An argument between Tyler and Beth starts over whether, if they moved to a better apartment, Barrett would move with them--but the underlying issues seem much deeper, having to do with the displacement that occurs when someone is dying . . . and then they don't.

I want to say less about the details of act three so others can discover them for themselves--but I will report that the lives of Barrett, Tyler, Beth, and Liz all change significantly and that I did enjoy Tyler's despair that a McCain/Palin administration was inevitable (a despair I shared at the time).

I admire The Snow Queen a great deal although I admit to not understanding the ending. Within a relatively brief novel, Cunningham explores multiple themes--what it means to be successful, to fight for success, or to accept failure; the sources of inspiration for art and the struggle when one's talent does not live up to what one feels inspired to create (and the role of drugs in the process of creation); accepting death, caretaking the one who is dying--and how not dying affects both the patient and the caretaker; brotherhood; and, perhaps underlying them all, the search for meaning. Onto these themes, he layers allusions to fairy tales, mythology, Madame Bovary, and the Bible. And all of this is accomplished in utterly beautiful prose.

I have minor quibbles--Beth and Liz are somewhat flat in comparison to Barrett and Tyler and Barrett's search for spiritual fulfillment seems to fizzle without explanation--but these are insignificant when compared to what I did like about the book.

Favorite passages:
The melody should have . . . a shimmering honesty, it should be egoless, no Hey, I can really play this guitar, do you get that? because the song is an unvarnished love-shout, an implorement tinged with . . . anger? Something like anger, but the anger of a philosopher, the anger of a poet, an anger directed at the transience of the world, at its heartbreaking beauty that collides constantly with our awareness of the fact that everything gets taken away; that we're being shown marvels but reminded, always, that they don't belong to us, they're sultan's treasures, we're lucky (we're expected to feel lucky) to have been invited to see them at all.  

The carpenter can't, of course, make furniture like that [furniture that embodies the power of one's father and the graciousness of one's mother], but he can imagine it, and as time goes by he lives with growing unease in the region between what he can create and what he can envision.

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