Michael Cunningham: The Snow Queen (2014)

The Snow Queen

Michael Cunningham’s luminous, compassionate new novel begins with a vision.

It’s November 2004. Barrett Meeks, having lost love yet again, is walking through Central Park when he is suddenly and inexplicably inspired to look up at the sky, where he sees a pale, translucent light that seems to regard him in a distinctly godlike way. Although Barrett doesn’t believe in visions – or in god, for that matter – he can’t deny what he’s seen.

At the same time, in the not-quite-gentrified Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, Beth, who’s engaged to Barrett’s older brother ,Tyler, is dying of colon cancer. Beth, Tyler, and Barrett have cobbled together a more or less happy home. Tyler, a struggling musician with a drug problem, is trying and failing to write a wedding song for his wife-to-be – something that will be not merely a sentimental ballad but an enduring expression of eternal love.

Barrett, haunted by the light, turns unexpectedly to religion. Tyler grows increasingly convinced that only drugs can release his deepest creative powers. Beth tries to face mortality with as much courage and stoicism as she can summon.

One night, after having been dumped by his boyfriend via text message, Barrett is walking through Central Park when he sees a light. He’s pretty sure it’s of divine origin and looking down on him. He’s not the only one in his entourage who would benefit from divine intervention. He shares an apartment with his older bother Tyler, an unsuccessful musician with a drug problem, and his soon-to-be sister-in law Beth who has colon cancer. Both could do with some divine assistance.

The Snow Queen starts shortly before Christmas. It snows constantly and the images Cunningham creates are lovely and haunting. Tyler standing at the open window, while the snow swirls into the room full of old broken objects. Beth who wears only white and goes for a solitary walk. Liz and Andrew who do drugs until the early morning and stand on the top of the roof talking.

Barrett was once a wunderkind, someone who promised to be great one day. A scholar, a writer, someone who would leave a mark. Nowadays he’s happy to be a shop assistant in Beth’s and Liz’s vintage clothes shop. He doesn’t see himself as a failure when it comes to his career but he definitely sees himself as failure when it comes to love.

Tyler, the addict, struggles hard to write the perfect song for his wedding. He’s sure that a small bit of cocaine occasionally will help him. But occasionally is just an addict’s way of saying “I’ll stop soon”. And he always stops – until the next time, which comes invariably.

Liz is the oldest of the group of friends. She’s over fifty and still dating young men in their twenties. When they leave her for younger women she doesn’t care. It’s part of the plan, part of never settling.

We follow the four characters over the course of four years and see each of them come to terms with their life choices. They are drifters who have to learn that what they wanted in life might not have been the thing that would really make them happy.

I’m not sure what to think of this novel. I’ve read it in one sitting and some of the images are still vivid but it was also quite lame. I’ve read two of Cunningham’s novels A Home at the End of the World and The Hours. I loved both but this one left me puzzled. The writing is airy and precise, the images he creates are haunting but overall it’s so fluffy. And most of the time I felt like I’ve read something similar somewhere before. I even had a shock moment while working out, watching TV, and an episode of Sex and the City came on. A lot in this episode resembled The Snow Queen. I must say I like him better when he recycles Virginia Woolf. I also have no idea why he chose the title. Tyler get’s a snow splinter in his eye at the beginning but apart from that and the snow-heavy first chapters, there’s no link. Another possible inspiration might have been Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, with which it has more than one element in common.

With the exception of one critic most were raving about this book. I agree that the writing is lovely and the descriptions of addiction are extremely well done. Nonetheless, I need a bit more than a person seeing a light which is never explained and a couple of drifters accepting that life isn’t as grand as they thought it would be. Read it if you want to read an ode to resignation in a snowy setting.