A darkly luminous new novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hours. In The Snow Queen, Michael Cunningham follows two brothers as each travels down a different path in his search for transcendence. In subtle, lucid prose, he demonstrates a profound empathy for his conflicted characters and a singular understanding of what lies at the core of the human soul.
A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love. It was by no means his first romantic dropkick, but it was the first to have been conveyed by way of a five-line text, the fifth line of which was a crushingly corporate wish for good luck in the future, followed by three lowercase xxx’s.
During the past four days, Barrett had been doing his best to remain undiscouraged by what seemed, lately, to be a series of progressively terse and tepid breakups. In his twenties, love had usually ended in fits of weeping, in shouts loud enough to set off the neighbors’ dogs. On one occasion, he and his soon-to-be-ex had fought with their fists (Barrett can still hear the table tipping over, the sound the pepper mill made as it rolled lopsidedly across the floorboards). On another: a shouting match on Barrow Street, a bottle shattered (the words “falling in love” still suggest, to Barrett, green glass shards on a sidewalk under a streetlamp), and the voice of an old woman, neither shrill nor scolding, emanating from some low dark window, saying, simply, “Don’t you boys understand that people live here, people are trying to sleep,” like the voice of an exhausted mother.
As Barrett moved into his mid-, and then late, thirties, though, the partings increasingly tended to resemble business negotiations. They were not devoid of sorrow and accusation, but they had without question become less hysterical. They’d come to resemble deals and investments that had, unfortunately, gone wrong, despite early promises of solid returns.
This last parting, however, was his first to be conveyed by text, the farewell appearing, uninvited, unanticipated, on a screen no bigger than a bar of hotel soap. Hi Barrett I guess u know what this is about. Hey we gave it our best shot right?
Barrett did not, in fact, know what this was about. He got the message, of course—love, and whatever future love implied, had been canceled. But, I guess u know what this is about? That had been something like a dermatologist saying, offhandedly, after your annual checkup, I guess you know that that beauty mark on your cheek, that little chocolate-colored speck that has been referred to, more than once, as an aspect of your general loveliness (who was it who said Marie Antoinette’s penciled-on version had been in precisely that spot?), is actually skin cancer.
Barrett responded initially in kind, by text. An e-mail seemed elderly, a phone call desperate. So he tapped out, on tiny keys, Wow this is sudden how bout we talk a little, I’m where I always am. xxx.
By the end of the second day, Barrett had left two more texts, followed by two voice mails, and had spent most of the second night not leaving a third. By the end of day number three, he had not only received no reply of any kind, but also had begun to realize there would be no reply at all; that the sturdily built, earnest Canadian Ph.D. candidate (psychology, Columbia) with whom he’d shared five months of sex and food and private jokes, the man who’d said “I might actually love you” after Barrett recited Frank O’Hara’s “Ave Maria” while they were taking a bath together, the one who’d known the names of the trees when they spent that weekend in the Adirondacks, was simply moving on; that Barrett had been left standing on the platform, wondering how exactly he seemed to have missed his train.
I wish you happiness and luck in the future. xxx.
On the fourth night, Barrett was walking across Central Park, headed home after a dental exam, which struck him on one hand as depressingly commonplace but, on the other, as a demonstration of his fortitude. Go ahead, rid yourself of me in five uninformative and woundingly anonymous lines. (I’m sorry it just hasn’t worked out the way we’d hoped it would, but I know we both tried our best.) I’m not going to neglect my teeth for you. I’m going to be pleased, pleased and thankful, to know that I don’t need a root canal, after all.
Still, the idea that, without having been offered any time to prepare for it, he’d never witness the pure careless loveliness of this young man, who was so much like those lithe, innocent young athletes adoringly painted by Thomas Eakins; the idea that Barrett would never again watch the boy peel his briefs off before bed, never witness his lavish, innocent delight in small satisfactions (a Leonard Cohen mix tape Barrett made for him, called Why Don’t You Just Kill Yourself; a victory for the Rangers), seemed literally impossible, a violation of love-physics. As did the fact that Barrett would, apparently, never know what it was that had gone so wrong. There had been, during the last month or so, the occasional fight, the awkward lapse in conversation. But Barrett had assumed that the two of them were merely entering the next phase; that their disagreements (Do you think you could try not to be late some of the time? Why would you put me down like that in front of my friends?) were signposts of their growing intimacy. He hadn’t remotely imagined that one morning he’d check his text messages and find love to have been lost, with approximately the degree of remorse one would feel over the loss of a pair of sunglasses.
On the night of the apparition, Barrett, having been relieved of the threatened root canal, having promised to floss more faithfully, had crossed the Great Lawn and was nearing the floodlit, glacial mass of the Metropolitan Museum. He was crunching over ice-coated silver-gray snow, taking a shortcut to the number 6 train, dripped on by tree branches, glad at least to be going home to Tyler and Beth, glad to have someone waiting for him. He felt numb, as if his whole being had been injected with novocaine. He wondered if he was becoming, at the age of thirty-eight, less a figure of tragic ardency, love’s holy fool, and more a middle manager who wrote off one deal (yes, there’ve been some losses to the company portfolio, but nothing catastrophic) and went on to the next, with renewed if slightly more reasonable aspirations. He no longer felt inclined to stage a counterattack, to leave hourly voice mails or stand sentry outside his ex’s building, although, ten years ago, that’s exactly what he’d have done: Barrett Meeks, a soldier of love. Now he could only picture himself as aging and destitute. If he summoned up a show of anger and ardency it would merely be meant to disguise the fact that he was broke, he was broken, please, brother, have you got anything you can spare?
Barrett hung his head as he walked through the park, not from shame but weariness, as if his head had become too heavy to hold upright. He looked down at the modest blue-gray puddle of his own shadow, cast by the lampposts onto the snow. He watched his shadow glide over a pinecone, a vaguely runic scattering of pine needles, and the wrapper of an Oh Henry! bar (they still made Oh Henry! bars?) that rattled by, raggedly silver, windblown.
The miniature groundscape at his feet struck him, rather suddenly, as too wintery and prosaic to bear. He lifted his heavy head and looked up.
There it was. A pale aqua light, translucent, a swatch of veil, star-high, no, lower than the stars, but high, higher than a spaceship hovering above the treetops. It may or may not have been slowly unfurling, densest at its center, trailing off at its edges into lacy spurs and spirals.
Barrett thought that it must be a freakish southerly appearance of the aurora borealis, not exactly a common sight over Central Park, but as he stood—a pedestrian in coat and scarf, saddened and disappointed but still regular as regular, standing on a stretch of lamp-lit ice—as he looked up at the light, as he thought it was probably all over the news—as he wondered whether to stand where he was, privately surprised, or go running after someone else for corroboration—there were other people, the dark cutouts of them, right there, arrayed across the Great Lawn …
In his uncertainty, his immobility, standing stolid in Timberlands, it came to him. He believed—he knew—that as surely as he was looking up at the light, the light was looking back down at him.
No. Not looking. Apprehending. As he imagined a whale might apprehend a swimmer, with a grave and regal and utterly unfrightened curiosity.
He felt the light’s attention, a tingle that ran through him, a minute electrical buzz; a mild and pleasing voltage that permeated him, warmed him, seemed perhaps ever so slightly to illuminate him, so that he was brighter than he’d been, just a shade or two; phosphorescent, but pinkly so, humanly so, nothing of swamp gas about it, just a gathering of faint blood-light that rose to the surface of his skin.
And then, neither slowly nor quickly, the light dissipated. It waned into a scattering of pale blue sparks that seemed somehow animated, like the playful offspring of a placid and titanic parent. Then they, too, winked out, and the sky was as it had been, as it has always been.
He remained standing for a while, watching the sky as if it were a television screen that had suddenly gone blank and might, just as mysteriously, turn itself on again. The sky, however, continued to offer only its compromised darkness (the lights of New York City gray the nocturnal blackness), and the sparse pinpoints of stars powerful enough to be seen at all. Finally, he continued on his way home, to Beth and Tyler, to the modest comforts of the apartment in Bushwick.
What else, after all, was he supposed to do?
Michael Cunningham is the author of six novels, including A Home at the End of the World, Flesh and Blood, The Hours (winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize), Specimen Days, and By Nightfall, as well as Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown. He lives in New York.