It seems prescient that Michael Cunningham chose to title his new novel after the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. This story is fresh in the public’s imagination after the monumentally successful and brilliantly realized recent Disney film ‘Frozen’ very loosely based on the same tale. Of course, Cunningham’s novel has little to do with the story except inflect it with metaphorical notions about magic and distorted perspectives. I absolutely loved Cunningham’s novel “The Hours” and I think the film was one of the most successful book-to-movie adaptations ever. His other books didn’t make as great an impact with me, but I will always be willing to give him another try.
“The Snow Queen” opens with a character named Barrett walking through a snowy November evening in 2004 in Central Park and sees a hazy blue cloud that he understands to be some kind of manifestation of the eye of god. Here’s a problem - one I didn’t think about until reading Thomas at My Porch’s blog post about why he quit reading this novel. It didn’t actually snow in NYC on that evening. I can understand readers’ frustration when novelists don’t get historical facts right. However, it doesn’t ruin the enjoyment I find in a novel. I figure that if the guy is seeing the eye of god in the sky we can also stretch our imaginations to believing it snowed on that day as well. I could get into a long argument here about what history really is. Don’t historians also distort the past by choosing to omit facts? Don’t even documentary film makers change our perspective on a particular time in history through their editing? And no, I don’t believe novelists have license to rewrite history simply because they labour in the territory of make-believe. Writers should try to get historical details as accurate as possible and, in some cases, I think it’s highly dangerous to wilfully distort the past because it may colour people’s understanding of history. However, whether it snowed or not on a particular day in a particular place seems to me a minor fib by Cunningham in order to better serve his story and central metaphor. But I appreciate that some readers can't get past it.
If you’re concerned that Cunningham will overplay quasi-mystical questions about the meaning of being in this novel don’t be. Barrett may be convinced he's had an encounter with some celestial presence, but he isn't a blind believer or inclined to mysticism. At one point he gets some time alone with handsome Andrew, a man who has inhabited his sexual imagination for a long time, and Andrew speaks of his reverence for shamans. Rather than indulging in fantasies of pseudo-religious experience, Barrett recognizes this as a lot of hogwash and goes off Andrew immediately. Cunningham gives Barrett's inclination towards religious feeling the parallel of Alice in Wonderland – wandering through with a curious attitude. It’s fully acknowledged that it might all be as one character describes “wishful bullshit.”
What Cunningham is more concerned with is the crisis we all feel at a certain point of whether we haven’t let ourselves down or aren’t living up to our potential as human beings. Barrett and his brother Tyler both had very promising starts as teenagers, but they’ve been drifting through life and relying on each other a little too much. Barrett is a shop assistant who can’t keep a steady relationship with a man – a problem that’s described in achingly realistic detail. Tyler is an unsuccessful musician who cares for his fiancé Beth who is suffering from cancer. The brothers lean on each other’s support and through their mutual dependence aren’t able to achieve their goals in life. Cunningham beautifully sums up the translation of religious feeling to aspirations in life here: “We worship numberless gods or idols, but we all need raiment, we need to be the grandest possible versions of ourselves, we need to walk across the face of the earth with as much grace and beauty as we can muster before we're wrapped in our winding sheets, and returned.” He compresses a lot in this sentence about personal motivation and dignity and why we idolize examples of greatness.
I appreciated the depiction of the brothers in the story and their special relationship, but felt like Cunningham drifted at times in the middle of the book lingering too long on less interesting characters. For example, after at a New Year party we’re introduced to three new characters. At the end of the evening we’re given summaries of how their lives play out and then we don’t hear from them again. It seems unnecessary in a novel that is relatively short to try to fully capture a wide array of lives when he’s gone to the trouble of creating characters that are already compelling to read about. But what Cunningham does so well is write about the gentle tug and pull that goes in with egos in social interactions. Characters try to lay out plainly how they are feeling in the moment, but are also aware of the reactions of those around them. They anticipate response and modify what they are saying based on the individual they are dealing with. This captures the natural and largely self-conscious way people engage with each other. He also acknowledges the expectations we have for others: “People are more than you think they are. And they're less, as well. The trick lies in negotiating your way between the two.” Sometimes we’re too quick to judge other people. Equally, no matter how much you revere someone, they will inevitably disappoint you at some point.
I admire that Cunningham writes frankly about sexuality. Not just people of different sexualities, but the way desire infiltrates our experience practically moment to moment. It’s something not a lot of authors are prepared to do. But I did get a bit tired with the idolatry he frequently shows in this novel for the heterosexual man’s body. Straight characters Tyler and Andrew both have their bodies described in sensuous detail as being nearly Ken-doll perfect. He ramps up the sexual tension portraying moments of sexual possibility with hands brushing against each other or a casualness about the brothers bathing in front of each other (which slightly stretches believability). All this reverence for a certain kind of masculinity results in a little too much panting after the hetero guy. It should be noted that the only real graphic sex scene in the novel is a heterosexual one.
An observation I particularly appreciated is one made towards the end of the novel where a character feels like he’s being scammed for money. It’s noted by another character that: “'I think pretty much everybody who says he needs money really and truly needs money. Maybe not for the reasons he's telling you. But still.'” This is a really relatable detail, particularly for anyone who lives in a city and encounters beggars. There have been occasions when someone has knocked on my door or stopped me in the street reeling out a story that is not logically probable. What it clear and honest though is their need for money. It makes a real moral dilemma when trying to decide whether to be generous or not because here is a person before you genuinely desperate.
“The Snow Queen” is a highly readable novel that conveys a lot about the complexity of friendship and romantic relationships. I think Cunningham was stretching for some meaning between American politics and the desire to believe, but I didn’t entirely get the significance of it. Where he succeeds is in the humour and bare emotion found in human interaction. And I can’t help being amused by any literary writer that can be so bolshy about his literary predecessors as to state in his novel: “Boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Fuck you, F. Scott Fitzgerald.”