Michael Cunningham’s luminous new novel, The Snow Queen, opens in 2004—a tumultuous year by any measure: September 11 was still fresh, the war in Iraq was injecting words like “IED” into the English vernacular, and John Kerry was flip-flopping aboard a sinking swiftboat.
Politics, at least in the eyes of left-leaning Americans like the ones who populate Cunningham’s book, had taken a very dark turn. Cunningham’s characters—liberal New Yorkers all—are deeply aware of America’s political travails: They are fearful of a second Bush term and, later, desirous of an Obama victory. They obsessively discuss, and inwardly agonize over, these possibilities.
Cunningham isn’t the first novelist to invoke America’s recent political landscape: In Ken Kalfus’ brilliant satire, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (2006), a husband and wife who can’t stand each other become convinced the other is trapped in the Twin Towers. The Submission (2011), Amy Waldman’s nuanced take on post–September 11 politics, looks at what happens when a Muslim architect is selected to design a memorial marking the attack. Several recent books by writers including Ben Fountain, Siobhan Fallon, and Hassan Blasim devastatingly explore the effects of the Iraq War from both sides of the battlefield.
In all of these books, politics writ large directly touch individual lives. But Cunningham’s new novel takes a slyly different approach: Rather than attempting to demonstrate how another Bush term, or an Obama win, would affect his characters, he imbues their lives with a narrative trajectory that directly mirrors America’s own story during that turbulent four-year span: an arc of despair, followed by cautious hope, and then back again. The war itself doesn’t change any of these people’s lives; instead, they change in parallel to outside circumstances.
The Snow Queen begins with a vision. Barrett Meeks, a 38-year-old Brooklynite who has, yet again, been dumped—this time via text message—is trudging through Central Park one morning when he looks up in the sky and sees “a pale aqua light, translucent, a swatch of veil” over the treetops. Though for most of his life Barrett has been devoutly secular, “as only an ex-Catholic can be,” he can’t deny what he witnesses—or the power the vision brings to bear on his life.
Meanwhile, back in his soon-to-be-gentrified Bushwick apartment, Barrett’s brother Tyler, a flailing musician with a secret cocaine problem, is plagued by his fiancée Beth’s late-stage cancer and obsessed with writing a perfect wedding song for her before she dies—a song that “won’t be all treacle and devotion, without (of course) being devoid of treacle and devotion.”
One of the many pleasures of Cunningham’s books is the honest—and intimate—way he writes about the burdens of love. In this new book, he complicates the motif by spinning a central romance involving a woman who may die any day. Beth, “a small unambitious person who keeps a capacity for love where others store their drives and their venal hopes and their self-regard” is immensely likeable, and the flashbacks into healthier moments of her life are absorbing and poignant. Particularly compelling are the scenes where Tyler first meets Beth, “with whom he’d fallen so immediately in love that he resembled some captive animal.”
The theme of love is so devoid of sentimentality here because Cunningham spends equal time exploring the shameful, selfish effects of loving a dying person. Tyler asserts that he “might have cared more about writing that song for Beth than [he] did about Beth herself.” And when Beth attempts to act brave around Barrett, he admits to himself, and to us, that “he’s growing weary of her courage, her efforts. They demand too much of him.” For Cunningham’s people, love comes with baggage: reluctant sacrifice breeds nagging guilt.
It is through Beth’s illness that the personal travails of Cunningham’s characters begin to mirror larger political themes. The way they wrestle with Beth’s cancer is acutely similar to the manner in which they experience the political unease of 2004–08. As Beth deteriorates, so, too, does America’s political discourse, its global image, its engagement in the Middle East. As Tyler attempts to accept the heartbreaking uncertainty of loving, and rushing to marry, a dying woman, his thoughts seamlessly meander from the personal to the global: “After Tyler and Beth are married … he’ll find them a better apartment in a less baleful neighborhood. Light will tumble in through casement windows, the floorboards will be smooth and level. And the American people (how could he have been so doubtful?) will not reelect the worst American president in history.” Of course, Bush—the object of Tyler’s scorn—was returned to office for a second term.
But then, at New Year’s 2006, Beth’s health begins suddenly to improve—just as Obama emerges as a possible presidential candidate. Cunningham doesn’t explicitly detail Obama’s ascendance, but for anyone who was politically aware during that period, the link is hard to miss. And yet, because Cunningham’s examinations of both illness and politics are so intricate and complex—and because characters like Tyler are connecting the thematic dots for themselves—the parallels feel satisfying rather than heavy-handed or authorial.
Even Beth’s insights into her own illness are fresh and surprising in their candor and self-awareness. When she experiences that jolt of recovery that may or may not last, she acknowledges something instantly recognizable from life but rarely explored in literature: the burden of gratitude. We live in a country where cancer is often viewed through the lens of self-help books and empowering benefit walks. Even some of our culture’s most shocking and intelligent takes on illness—HBO’s “The Big C”; Sam Lipsyte’s blisteringly funny novel The Subject Steve; “Breaking Bad”—often examine what it’s like to live with, and fight against, a crippling disease. What makes Cunningham’s take so resonant is that he writes directly and honestly about the boredom (and the shame of being bored) that can emerge during periods of recovery. As Beth’s condition improves, she worries that she’s not feeling as grateful as she should be. “There’s the feeling that, having been granted this impossible gift, she ought to do something with it,” we’re told. “There’s no reason for her to do anything more, there’s no rule, but now her days and nights feel too small for her. … She hadn’t expected this sense of insufficiency. She’s never told anyone about it. She’s loath to admit it even to herself. There are times—not often, but still, there are times—when she feels ever so slightly … lost, being restored to life.” Much has been written about the effects of disease. Less explored are the impacts of recovery.
Cunningham’s particular genius is that he doesn’t satisfy himself with simply uncovering an underexplored truth—he takes it one step further: Beth’s moment of hope comes just as Obama emerges as the physical embodiment of many Americans’ aspirations. Her mixed emotions foreshadow something she cannot know: that in the years since 2008, hope, politically speaking, has diminished and change has yet to arrive.
While this novel spans these particular four years between ’04 and ’08, Cunningham—and we—are well aware of everything that has transpired since. Obama is no longer spoken of in messianic terms. At the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner last week, the President poked fun at such bygone perceptions, joking that the Swedes seem to hand out Nobel Peace Prizes “to just about anybody these days.” Like all politicians who campaign in poetry, the president has been forced to govern in prose. The characters in The Snow Queen bounce back and forth unendingly between periods of happiness, depression and something in between. So too, it seems, does the nation in which they live.