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Posted on 19 Mar 2024 in Fiction | 1 comment

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM Day. Reviewed by CJ Pardey

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In this new novel, New Yorker Michael Cunningham takes inspiration from lockdowns and their impact on relationships.

In his most recent novel, Day, Michael Cunningham takes on the difficult business of fictionalising the Covid experience. In his Pulitzer-winning novel The Hours, he cleverly wove together the vastly different experiences of three characters, all of whom are associated with Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel Mrs Dalloway. In Day Cunningham again works in threes, focussing on three characters and setting his novel over three days. The first day, 5 April 2019, is before Covid; the second, the same day a year later, is at the height of the pandemic; and the last, a further year later, is after the worst of Covid is over.

The three characters – Isabel, her husband Dan and her brother Robbie – are an unusual grouping. Cunningham shows us that Isabel and Dan are both a little in love with Robbie, at the same time revealing that the couple are no longer in love with each other. With their two children, Violet and Nathan, Isabel and Dan – and Robbie – live in their too-small apartment in Brooklyn.

Isabel, more than Dan, is increasingly aware her marriage is in trouble: both she and Dan relate more to Robbie than they do to each other. Isabel and Robbie reinvest in their childhood fantasy about Wolfe, the older brother they never had, who is brought into the world through Robbie’s blog posts. Wolfe lives the life that neither of them do.

‘Why don’t we give Wolfe a house upstate?’

Dan, rather than fabricating make-believe characters, prefers to remember the past, and he dwells on Robbie’s adulation of him when he was a successful musician.

None of the three seem capable of change; even before Covid begins they are marooned in stagnant lives. Isabel imagines herself sitting in her apartment while new owners walk around her, accepting, like her, the impossibility of her going anywhere. Robbie, now a teacher at an elementary school, has none of the empathy so vital to teaching – ‘You have no idea what it’s like to be in a room with them, every day’ – but is unable to leave. Dan has trouble accepting his new life, still insisting on keeping his hair a peroxide blond.

Utilising Wolfe’s alternate fantasy life and Covid, more real to some members of the family than others, Cunningham poses existential questions. He subtly shows how the pandemic, while a constant presence, for many remained unreal and unseen. And how it drew attention to what had previously been pushed aside in the routine of the day-to-day.

The living room in which Isabel and Dan still live remains suspended in its neither-here-nor-there condition.

Covid brings this condition into sharp focus over the three time periods as Cunningham deftly pushes all three characters into making decisions that will have unforeseen and major consequences.

The adults in Day are strangely unfazed by Covid, and it is only Dan and Isabel’s daughter, Violet, who fears it. Violet is insistent that windows not be opened, and is ever anxious about Covid getting into the house and infecting them. Because she is a child she fights against being powerless, but the adults in Cunningham’s story are more likely to accept their situation. Perhaps this is because they have already learnt the lesson of resignation, or perhaps it is because they are yet to learn the lesson that they are human; Cunningham leaves it to the reader to decide.

Cunningham’s characters are made real by their relationships, or lack of them. The peripheral but interesting story of Chess, a single mother who refuses to be involved with the father of her child, works nicely to show the role social dynamics can play in shaping people. While Isabel and Dan’s interactions with Robbie can bring out the best in them, refusing a relationship can have similar positive results. Chess, by refusing a relationship with Dan’s brother Garth, the father of her child, believes this decision will bring out the best in her. While Chess is an unusual addition to the story, she has her purposes. Chess has a wonderful scene where she is teaching House of Mirth to a class of sophomores, debating the role marriage could have played in saving Lily Bart. It is Chess’s unspoken belief that her most annoying student:

‘… might be shocked someday to learn how hard it is to dismantle the marriage narrative. You have no idea, not yet, how persistent that motherfucker can be.’

Without giving too much away about how the story ends, it is clear this line reflects a major theme of the novel.

The large amount of dialogue works to show all three main characters are close, but at the same time Cunningham imbues all three with a solitariness that continues even when they are forced into even closer confinement by Covid. Cunningham seems to be saying that while Covid could bring about sudden change, in the form of illness or even death, much of what happened during the pandemic was perhaps going to happen anyway. Circumstances can change quickly but people do not.

Michael Cunningham Day HarperCollins 2023 PB 288pp $32.99

Catherine Pardey has reviewed for Rochford Street Review and The Beast.

You can buy Day from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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1 Comment

  1. This is a fine review of a book l that I enjoyed reading very much. There is so much ennui in this novel