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The Book We're Talking About: 'The Snow Queen' By Michael Cunningham

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Snow Queen
by Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26.00
Publishes May 6, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think
There’s a recent tradition in literary fiction to pen stories about aimless, career-less intellectuals wondering when and how they’ll get their acts together. This is a fine framing for a story –- if writers should write from life, then it makes sense that protagonists should often take the shape of wandering artists doing all they can to pay their bills on time. But, when unadorned by plot, such a story can be dull and hackneyed.

Chip from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections comes to mind. A failed academic, he winds up with a precarious gig defrauding American investors, and later tries in vain to write a screenplay. Although he provides an outlet for commentary on the perils of creative work, he’s too arrogant and unlikable to carry an entire novel, and Franzen seems to recognize this.

Cunningham, on the other hand, does not seem to. His latest novel, The Snow Queen, is a flurry of smart, unrelated observations made by protagonist Barrett, an aging prodigy who’s recently moved in with his brother and his fiancée. Perspective shifts between these three characters, all who are struggling to cope with the mundanity of middle age.

Tyler, Barrett’s brother and a struggling musician, can’t seem to muster the same energy he could in his youth without the help of a few lines of cocaine. Still, he’s uncharacteristically optimistic about the well-being of his fiancée, Beth, who’s recently been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. The couple still plans to marry, and as a wedding gift, Tyler’s writing a song for Beth -– or attempting to, anyway. While doing so, he wonders, “Where, at one point, does passion bleed into naïveté?”

Barrett seems consumed by the same question: Paralyzed by indecision, he’s a jack-of-all-trades, master of none (“almost everything is interesting”). Same goes for his love life; his perfectionism gets in the way of his happiness. His meandering thoughts about paths not taken are at first worth following, but quickly become overwrought with metaphor (of his brother, Barrett observes, “an enchanted sensual slyness, the prince transformed into wolf or lion, all slumbering large-pawed docility, awaiting, with avid yellow eyes, love’s first kiss”).

Still, there’s no mistaking the fact that Cunningham can turn a pretty phrase, and his latest novel is enjoyable, if only for that reason. He also paints a clear picture of Bushwick, Brooklyn circa 2006, a place swiftly changing from a crime-ridden everything store for heavy drug users to a neighborhood for burgeoning artists.

Its residents are collectively represented by Barrett, who, after grappling with both religiousness and academia, arrives at his own personal truth: “It’s enough, for Barrett, to pursue the little way; to seek knowledge for its own sake... He sells objects to people, who are delighted by the objects he sells them. He studies in solitude and secrecy.”

The fantastical elements in The Snow Queen, which takes its name from the Hans Christian Anderson story, are ancillary to the troubles of the three main characters and their shifting crowd of friends. Had they been more deeply fleshed out, Cunningham’s book might’ve merited its length. Otherwise, it’d have worked better as a short story, sans its indulgent observations.

What other reviewers think
Los Angeles Times: "Although its characters have a habit of relating tales that make life seem stranger than fiction, 'The Snow Queen' resembles 'By Nightfall' in its desire to provide urbane literary entertainment without too much stress or strain over form. Big questions are nonetheless posed on this compact canvas, in which spiritual mystery is set beside related Dionysian subjects such as artistic creation, drug use and, of course sex (of a not especially satisfying variety, it must be said)."

The New York Times: "Mr. Cunningham seems to have harnessed his more sentimental inclinations, and instead of piling poetic phrases one on top of another to evoke his characters’ predicaments, he artfully allows the reader direct access to their hearts and minds by using his gift for empathy and his own brand of stream of consciousness."

The Washington Post: "For all his stylistic elegance, Cunningham doesn’t offer the theological sophistication and spiritual insight that, say, Marilynne Robinson might bring to the existential questions this novel poses."

Who wrote it?
Michael Cunningham is best known for his novel The Hours, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He's written a number of other novels and screenplays, and is a creative writing lecturer at Yale University.

Who will read it?
Fans of fiction with fantastical elements, and those interested in psychologically poignant books (as opposed to more plot-driven stories.)

Opening lines:
"A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love. It was by no means his first romantic dropkick, but it was the first to have been conveyed by way of five-line text, the fifth line of which was a crushingly corporate wish for good luck in the future, followed by three lowercase xxx's."

Notable passage:
"Barrett dries off. The bathwater, now that he's out of the tub, has turned from its initial, steaming clarity to a tepid murk, as it always does. Why does that happen? Is it soap residue, or Barrett residue -- the sloughed-off outermost layer of city grime and deceased epidermis and (he can't help but thinking this) some measure of his essence, his little greeds and vanities, his self-admiration, his habit of sorrow, washed away, for now, with soap, left behind, to spiral down the drain."

Rating, out of ten:
6. Although Cunningham makes smart observations about the lives of aging creative types, his story is bogged down by convoluted metaphors.

Read an excerpt of Michael Cunningham's The Snow Queen:

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