The Hours. Micheal Cunningham.

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. Harper Perennial Toronto 2011 (first published 1998). F; 06/13

When you write, even my kind of sincere amateur nonfiction, once in awhile reading something really good (really creative, effortlessly resonant, wonderfully ranging imagination on display) you let yourself believe that on a very good day you could possibly achieve something like it. But I could never, ever accomplish anything like this. Let alone make it look this easy.

I bought this book at Chapters digging around for something award-winning, and chose to read Banville’s The Infinities first, never having heard of Cunningham. Where do wonderful writers I’ve never heard of hide?

In case there happens to be anybody else who hasn’t read this and/or seen the movie, three women (1920s, 1950s, and turn-of-the-millennium contemporary) one of whom is Virginia Woolf live a day a la her character Clarissa Dalloway, their streams of consciousness connecting and diverging. Falsehood, a dreamed life, escape, and death preoccupy them all. The spirit of place and time of each is perfect with no suggestion of politics. Elegant vaguely arrogant 1920s England, flat conventional 1950s Los Angeles, and sophisticated emancipated turn-of-the-millennium New York. Throughout and in the end hums the tension between longing for something wonderful and living here and now, which repeatedly turns out to be “enough”. Good enough.

My inner art-gallery-experience barometer went off the scale on about page 5 and a couple of times I stopped reading just to prolong the experience. There is alchemy in the choice of details. Early on, perfectly simple mundane objects and events were resonating with unaccustomed recursive significance which for me only happens when I not only suspend disbelief but get used to trusting that the leap of faith is going to be worth it. Here it always is.

Cunningham’s gay world is credible, palatable, invisible really to I’m sure even the most committed homophobe. It doesn’t matter that the major and most magical relationships are homosexual, the gay fact never approaches polemic and is quite comfortable as a convincing metaphor.

Such honest deeply personal emotion. Virginia wakes up from a dream the details of which she can’t remember, but the sentiment of which she recognizes as potentially creative. “It could be a good day; it needs to be treated carefully.” She avoids contact and gets right down to writing. The awful moment when Mrs. Brown connects with her neighbor Kitty with her probable cancer, under the spell of the book Virginia is working on.

When I say recursive, I’m talking about for example a stream of awareness of oneself, reading someone else’s stream of awareness. Thinking of writing about someone thinking is accessible and straightforward, and so is creating your own thinking as you read, write, or dream. As long as you’re in the appropriate frame of mind. Two pages of this book will put anyone in the appropriate frame of mind. Once that dynamic is established there’s no reason for everything not to be personally creative. Laura Brown wants her cake to be “a dream of a cake manifested as a cake.” This is like Damasio’s brain story in which the organism is “… caught in the act of representing its own changing state as it goes about representing something else.” But, he says, “… the astonishing fact is that the knowable entity of the catcher has just been created in the narrative of the catching process.”

At one point I thought my radar lost contact with the usual effortlessly true-to-life emotional signal. Virginia is considering the devil, and the “certain tragic grandeur” she contemplates doesn’t seem to me to encompass the very dark side she and Mr. Cunningham are imagining. Presuming the radar is working okay, there really was only that one blank spot on the screen.

The creative generosity here not only includes me the reader but finally even “wives who’ve agreed to be harmless in exchange for their keep”. Eventually we all die, but in the meantime we get to live in the imagination as much as in a conventional household or any of a thousand other limitations. As the book-jacket commentator says “if this book does not make you jump up from the sofa, looking at life and literature in new ways, check to see if you have a pulse.” At the moment we do, driving at its finite number of beats. “Heaven only knows why we love it so.” Maybe because right up to the end there’s still a chance that we will run into something like The Hours.

I’ll get ahold of Mrs. Dalloway, and read something else by Cunningham. I haven’t done this book justice. It’s a blockbuster. Probably among my top five at least in the last 10 years or so. 9.4/9.7.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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