What I love about Michael Cunningham is that he is a reader’s writer. His literary allusions are satisfyingly extended metaphors that enrich the story he is telling. That effect is most profound if you are intimately familiar with the particular writer or genre he is riffing on, but I am guessing that it embellishes the overall message of his story whether you get the allusion or not. This particular novel is decorated and layered with imagery. His novel The Hours was just about as perfect as a novel can be, while this novel is a bit more uneven, but I still found myself infatuated with a fair share of the novel’s imagery.
In The Snow Queen, the literary underpinnings are very accessible, as accessible as classic fairy tales and heroic fantasies of knights and ladies. They are the very stuff of childhood for those children who seem hardwired to appreciate drama and who spend time enhancing their reality by adding mental costumes and sets, by turning ordinary actions into medieval scenarios. These kids participate in these interactions which observers see as the mundane stuff of childhood, but which the children see as gleaming and mythical vignettes which may or may not involve princesses (queens) or knights trailing “shining capes of chain mail.” These images also give the author opportunities to dazzle us with linguistic magic.
We meet Barrett and Tyler. Barrett is our dreamer, Tyler our rock star, neither as larger-than-life as we or they would wish. They are brothers with a back story; their mom died when she was struck by lightning on a golf course, but not before making high school football star Tyler promise to always look after his younger brother Barrett, who is not as socially gifted.
These brothers are no longer young. Barrett should already have outgrown that fantasy dimension which lends his world its romantic tint. Tyler should have either succeeded as a musician or placed it secondary to a real career, or perhaps even tertiary to family and career.
Barrett wanders through Central Park as the novel begins on the way to the apartment where he lives with his brother and his brother’s dying fiancée, Beth. A mysterious light appears to him (and apparently only to him) as he crosses the park and he is stopped; he is not a believer in the light but he cannot deny the light. Is this light a message? Is this light about God or something else?
We first encounter Tyler rising from the bed he shares with the fragile and daintily frail, but lovely Beth, because it is snowing in their bedroom. She lies in her beauty and stillness on the bed as the snow falls and begins to pile up on the floor (the Snow Queen).
There is also the part of this story that is not ancient myth but more urban reality. Drugs like cocaine (snow) and heroine appear casually in Cunningham’s story, although users want to quit and there are suggestions that rehab has been tried and will be tried again. I can’t tell anymore, but I will say that, in a way, this is a coming of age story for people like us in 21st century America who have a very long adolescence. It’s a story of love and death with bits of literary adrenalin all over the place.
By Nancy Brisson
<a href=https://plus.google.com/10640005355488737390?=author>Nancy Brisson</a>