The twenties were known as The Jazz Age and is is fitting that this book, based on one of the key books of the twenties, should use the methodology of jazz. The repetition of key phrases in different settings, with different emphasis means that we constantly reevaluate not just The Hours but also Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, from which it takes its inspiration.
Indeed, picking up this inspired me to pick up Woolf's book and read it first and I am glad that I did so. I feel that having it fresh in my mind allowed me to appreciate the way Cunningham picked up, twisted and gathered together many threads from Mrs Dalloway, at times almost quoting long passages, at others merely brushing against the form of the earlier book.
The book starts with a coda, disguised as a prologue. Indeed it is both. It tells of the last day of Virginia Woolf, as she walked out to the river, picks a stone "roughly the size and shape of a pigs skull" and surrenders to the "sudden, muscular force" of the river current and is gone. Her suicide hangs over the tales of three days that make up the rest of The Hours, and the drag of that muscular current runs through each.
One sequence is a day from the life of Virginia Woolf while writing Mrs Dalloway; one a day in the post war suburban life of a woman preparing for her husband's birthday party while she reads Mrs Dalloway; and the third is the story of New York publisher and lesbian Clarrissa preparing a party in honour of a sick, aging gay poet Richard (who calls her Mrs Dalloway) and who is to receive an award afterwards. The first section follows WW1, the second WW2 and the AIDS epidemic plays the part of a war in the third. The damage caused by these is a key part of the structure of each.
At the heart of this book is a question: "Why else (other than love) do we struggle to go on living, no matter how compromised, no matter how harmed? Even if we're fleshless, blazing with lesions, shitting in the sheets; still we want desperately to live." And also the shadow question - why do we want to die?
One of the clear changes from Woolf's novel is that lesbian and gay themes are not subterranean by the third and most recent story, but a distinctly mapped terrestrial landscape. At one point Clarissa imagines a conversation she would have with Richard about someone she meets, a successful gay novelist: "arguing about Walter Hardy and the quest for eternal youth, about how gay men have taken to imitating the boys who tortured them in high school." (Is Hardy a version of Cunningham?)
Cunningham has replaced the born again religious friend of Mrs Dalloway's daughter (Doris Kinman) with Mary Krull, a shaven headed anti-capitalist lesbian "Mary, the righteous" always out on protests but only shopping under protest. Both feel hard done by the world, unfulfilled.
They both raise the maternal hackles and the alternate Mrs Dalloways feel protective - feel that these women are not worthy of, or good for their daughters.
"Miss Kilman stood there (and stand she did, with the power and taciturnity of some prehistoric monster armoured for primeval warfare)"
"Clarissa thinks of a little girl dragging home a stray dog, all ribs and discoloured teeth; a pathetic and ultimately dangerous creature who ostensibly needs a good home but whose hunger in fact runs so deep it cannot be touched by any display of love or bounty."
The presence of the fictional Woolf means that we don't just have the two further riffs on Mrs Dalloway but also Woolf's own (imagined) thoughts on the book as she wrote it. A lot of these centre upon whether or not Mrs Dalloway will kill herself and these thoughts are of course inseparable from Woolf's own suicide. This interrogates the way in which an author creates characters and how their personal interior doubts and fears emerge onto the page.
In Virginia's monologue we read that "She has learned over the years that sanity involves a certain amount of impersonation." Also that there is "true art in" the "command of tea and dinner tables; this animating correctness." Each character seems to have a second self lurking within. Laura Brown feels that "It's almost as if she's accompanied by an invisible sister, a perverse woman full of rage and recriminations, a woman humiliated by herself, and it is this woman, this unfortunate sister, and not Laura, who needs comfort and silence." Characters are always being surprised by their own reactions.
"These spasms of emotion take him constantly. A song can do it; even the sight of an old dog."
Emotions can be transgressive: "At this moment she could devour him, not ravenously but adoringly, infinitely gently, the way she used to take the Host into her mouth before she married and converted..."
These emotions are so strong, and often so upsetting, that relief is required. Sometimes they have to be escaped as well as managed. "This hotel, this lobby, is precisely what she wants - the cool nowhere of it, the immaculate non-smell, the brisk unemotional comings and goings."
The two novels both seem to say that the desire to be driven by and submerged in our emotions is a dangerous one. Too much feeling can tear you apart. Putting on a party can be as, or more important than a war. How to live, after all, is a more essential question than how we die. Death is inevitable.
"It is enough, she tells herself. She strives to believe that. It is enough to be in this house, delivered from the war, with a nights reading ahead of her, and then sleep, and then work again in the morning. It is enough that the streetlamps throw yellow shadows into the trees."
This is an often dark book which doesn't shy away from being bleak but somehow, like it's precursor, I admire it more than love it. Is it that the control, the competence, is essentially conservative? Jazz it may be but not the howling existential jazz of Charlie Parker but more the polite jazz of Norah Jones.
I'll end with a quote from Cunningham which I enjoyed and suggests a similarity with the Woolf of The Hours, that perhaps creativity and depression are linked.
"I also began to understand," he continues, "that they were upset to realize that they had raised a child who was, according to their view of things, unhappy enough to write novels. In a novel -- at least in the novels I write -- you expose your acquaintance with heartbreak and all the darkness in the world. Most people don't ever have to tell their parents about your nameless sorrows you're your disappointments in love. My parents read all about it."(quote from here)