Volume VIII, Number 2, Fall 2012

"Of Homes and the “Unhomely”: Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days" by Pramod K. Nayar

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the Dept. of English, Univ. of Hyderabad, India. His recent publications include Digital Cool: Life in the Age of New Media (Orient BlackSwan 2012), Colonial Voices: The Discourses of Empire (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), Writing Wrongs: The Cultural Construction of Human Rights in India (Routledge 2012), among others. His work has appeared in Journal of British Studies, Postcolonial Text, Commonwealth: Essays and Studies, Studies in Travel Writing, Prose Studies, South Asian Review, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Notes on Contemporary Literature, College Literature, Kunapipi, Ariel, Journal of Commonwealth Literature and elsewhere. Forthcoming is a book on Frantz Fanon for the Routledge Critical Thinkers series and a book on posthumanism for Polity. He is also interested in superhero comics. Email:


Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days (2006) is essentially a novel about home, homelessness and the quest for a new home. The novel is composed of three narratives, each of which deals with the idea of “home” but also its spaces, in particular ways. Each of the three narratives also revolves around three principal characters, Simon, Luke/Lucas and Catherine/Catareen.

The first narrative, set in mid-late nineteenth-century New York City (NYC), is about the individual dwelling/home of the young boy Simon’s family and the cognate space, the factory. Simon is killed in an accident in the factory when the machine he is working on crushes him. His parents, as a result, have withdrawn from the world, and from rationality, with his mother spending most of the day in bed in a delirium. Simon’s younger brother, Lucas, is given a job in the factory. He is infatuated with Simon’s fiancée, Catherine, who works in another factory. Lucas is also paranoid about machinery and believes that the machines will get Catherine as well. He pleads with her to quit her job, and persists in his attempts to convince her. Eventually Lucas hits upon a method to get Catherine out of her factory: he pushes his arm into the machine that killed his brother. Severely injured, he sends word to Catherine, who rushes out of her factory to accompany Lucas to the hospital.

The second narrative deals with post-9/11 NYC and is essentially the story of an African American policewoman, Cat. Cat has lost her son, Luke, some years before. She is a fiercely independent, efficient cop, who has an enormously wealthy but cold boyfriend, Simon. NYC is under siege from an unusual source. Children wander through public places, hug people at random and blow themselves up. One of these killer-children calls the police hotline and speaks with Cat. She discovers that the speaker is one of a group of children reared in groups by messianic and (perhaps deranged) men and women who have tasked themselves with leading a crusade against the mechanized civilization of twentieth century New York. As the suicide bombings go on, the boy who speaks to Cat turns up at her house. Cat decides to escape with the child, in whom she sees her own dead son, and even calls him “Luke.” On the run with the boy, Cat discovers that this was hardly a “rescue”: she was meant to do so in order that she too facilitates the “crusade” the children are on. When the narrative ends Cat becomes aware that she is a pawn in the larger “mission,” and realizes that one day, this boy will kill her as well, in her own home.

The third narrative, with Simon (an android) as the main protagonist, is set in a post-apocalyptic world sometime in the future. Human-animal hybrids and cults roam the devastated USA, even as most parts of the earth itself have become increasingly unfit for human life. An alien species, the Nadians, essentially lizard-like creatures, are servants and slaves to the human race. Every inch of the land is under surveillance by drones. Simon sees his fellow android gunned down by the powerful corporate machinery and decides that he needs to go back to the laboratory that manufactured him. He has also fallen in love with a Nadian, Catareen. As Simon and Catareen turn fugitives from NYC, they make their way towards California. En-route they meet various cults, and a young boy, Luke. When they eventually reach the laboratory of Emory Lowell, Simon discovers that Lowell and his team – which includes androids, hybrids and Nadians – is preparing to leave earth for another planet. Luke decides to accompany them. Simon refuses to go because Catareen is dying. Immediately after her death, Simon rushes out, hoping to get into the spacecraft leaving earth, to discover that it has just left the launch-pad. Simon now decides to roam the earth on horseback.

Simon, Lucas/Luke and Catherine/Cat/Catareen are the principal characters in the three narratives. The novel, which is primarily about home and habitation, has an interesting geographic-demographic scheme. In the first narrative the focus is on Simon’s house and factory, his surviving family and Catherine. It does not move beyond NYC and its suburbs. In the second narrative we have Cat, her boyfriend Simon, and the dispersed killer- children. The geographical extent here is NYC, Cat’s house in NYC, the distributed houses of children in various places in the USA, and Cat’s final nomadic shifts across the continent, seeking a new home. In the third narrative the USA as a continent but also the earth itself is the geographic setting. Simon is an android and he partners Catareen, a member of an alien species. They move across the USA. In the first narrative we only have humans, with the suggestion that the machines have a ghostly life of their own. In the second narrative the human children function as automatons, efficient killing machines. In the third we have fewer humans and more aliens and alien-human and human-machine hybrids. Thus the demographic matrix of the novel also moves outward from the humans to include larger and larger variant forms of life and intelligence.

Aris Mousoutzanis (2009) has persuasively argued that the novel embodies the uncanny as an underlying principle, alongside both trauma and displacement. Mousoutzanis further proposes that Cunningham is concerned with migration, displacement and racial/ethnic Othering. While Mousoutzanis is accurate in his interpretation of the uncanny as repetition and trauma, it is odd that what gets left out of this discussion is the primary etymological and thematic motif of the uncanny: unheimlich is essentially “unhomely,” what is at once like and not like home. The uncanny, I argue in the case of this novel, is the doubling between home and the unhomely. The home and the homely shade perceptibly into the “unhomely” in each of the three narratives. This ‘shading” is the focus of the present essay.

Sigmund Freud in his famous theorization of the “uncanny” (1919) noted that the German “heimlich” indicates “familiar,” “native,” “belonging to the home.” What is “uncanny,” writes Freud “is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar” (370, emphasis in original). Freud also demonstrates how “Unheimlich is in some way or other a sub-species of heimlich” (377). Repetition and doubling are integral to this sense of the uncanny, says Freud. Freud defined the uncanny as a “constant recurrence of similar situations, a same face, or character-trait, or twist of fortune, or a same crime, or even a same name recurring throughout several consecutive generations” (387). Repetition in Specimen Days occurs at several levels.

First, Cunningham’s text is peopled with ghostly doublings. Catherine, Lucas and Simon are repeated as characters, but with variations. When the child-bomber tells Cat in the second narrative “we’re all the same person. We all want the same things” (128) he has gestured at the repetition of ambitions, dreams and hopes that the crusaders thrive on. Mythic, quasi-messianic figures appear in all three narratives: Whitman (about which I shall have more to say later), the old woman who brings up the child-bombers in the second, and who is called “Walt Whitman” by her foster children, and Emory Lowell – who leads the exodus to another planet, away from earth – in the third.

Second, thematically, a kind of loss pervades the life of each character in all three narratives. There is the loss of people: Simon’s death in the first, Cat’s son in the second, Simon’s friend, Marcus in the third. Then there is the loss of home: Lucas” home in the first is a “reduced” home, as I shall demonstrate. The killer-children are homeless in the second narrative. Earth as home is itself lost to the humans in narrative Three.

Third, structurally, Cunningham’s novel plays out another key feature of the Freudian uncanny repetition. The dead Simon in the first narrative inhabits the cold machines, in Lucas’ perception. In the second narrative, Simon is Cat’s coldly efficient, ambitious and ruthless boyfriend. In the third, Simon is a human-machine hybrid, a cyborg or android. In each case “Simon” is the name of a repetition, where some-thing moves from a perceived voice in the machine (first narrative) to a cold, highly self-controlled man (second narrative) to a human-machine android (third narrative). Simon repeats his earlier “forms,” but repeats differently – lending an uncanniness to our perception of him. Catherine in the first narrative seeks to be kind to the boy, Lucas. In the second, Cat the policewoman guards the killer-child, Luke. In the third, the alien Catareen is again the care-giver to Luke. In each narrative the care-giver is either exploited or wronged by the child: Lucas in the first narrative recasts his relationship with Catherine against her wishes. In the second Cat, as noted above, realizes that the boy Luke will one day kill her. In the third, Luke abandons the dying Catareen.

Beside these structural conditions of the uncanny, Specimen Days literally takes the core element of Freudian theory as its basis: the home, where the “heimlich” and “unheimlich” are played out in these doublings, repetitions and troubled perceptions. Cunningham’s novel, this essay argues, suggests a rethinking of the very idea of home by proposing a change in the idea of the family that inhabits the home. The novel in its centrifugal movement outward from individual dwelling or house to the earth itself invites us to envisage the space of the earth-home and its inhabitants as a more inclusive “home,” where species, including human, co-evolve with other species. Specimen Days offers, it further argues, a “companion species” version of the human/family.

I also propose that while Sigmund Freud’s interest in the uncanny was restricted to the perceptions of the familiar and unfamiliar vis-à-vis the domestic spaces of home, it is possible to see in Cunningham’s text an instantiation of a cultural uncanny as well, something that moves beyond the home into a larger space or context, and where the “home” itself comes to be redefined. If Freud treated the uncanny as related to the realm of spirits and ghosts (393) that one perceives at the level of the home or the individual, Cunningham’s novel elaborates a cultural uncanny marked by a return of cultural ghosts. Freud theorized the uncanny as a repetition of some elements of the individual’s past (home) that inform the present (home) and make it unfamiliar. The cultural uncanny in Specimen Days is a return to a collective memory or past. What repeats from the past disarranges the present home, even as attempts are made to recast the present home in images, and ideals, of the past.

The theme of home and its loss is organized around three key movements: the losses in the home making it a lesser home (or home-less), the loss of home (being homeless), a ruined home and the resultant quest for a new home.


1. Home-less and the Unhomely (Unheimlich)

The first narrative opens in a home that has suffered a serious loss: the eldest son, Simon, is dead, pulled into a machine at the factory, a week before his wedding. Simon’s death leaves the family shattered. His parents (never named) and his younger brother, Lucas, find the space of the home unbearable. Simon’s fiancée, Catherine, is traumatized but is trying to stitch her life back together. The narrative is about a lessening of the homely, a home-less state.

The narrative thus opens with a loss, and a repetition-with-a-difference in the home that generates the uncanny. There had been guests, and there had been a special ham: “the ham had been meant for Catherine and Simon’s wedding. It was luck, then, to have it for the wake instead” (3). The “event” of the wake repeats an intended event, which never occurs. The uncanny asserts itself, horrifically and tragically, in the very opening here: a festive home-to-be becomes a home-of-mourning even before the former event. The ‘doubling” of the wedding-ham as a wake-ham and the home as a space of gathering is a twisted doubling because the wedding-as-event is inscribed into the wake but without ever happening. Everybody at the wake is aware that they should have been at a wedding in this same space. The uncanny is about the doubling of an event that never was, and which converts the home into something else. Lucas’s perception – the uncanny is always, primarily, about perception – of this odd doubling of the ham’s role marks the inaugural moments of the home theme. It is the same, and yet not the same (what Freud would readily identify, as we have seen above, as the familiar assuming the shape or form of something new and becoming unfamiliar). Soon after, when Catherine invites Lucas to walk her home (5), they both understand that “it will not be quite the same” (6). “Not … quite the same” is an excellent phrase in its uncanniness: it is the same, but not quite. This identifiable sameness and irreducible difference render the home “unhomely,” a lesser home, so to speak.

The lessening of this home causes Luke to wander the streets of NYC. Here on the streets he is a stranger, he does not belong. Lucas does not want to go back home “though home was the rightful place for him” (7). On his walk through the city he surprises passers-by: he is quoting Walt Whitman’s poetry. Their surprise at the poetry – English but yet alien to them – makes him realize that he does not belong here: “In the next world, he [the passerby who stares at him] would not consider Lucas strange. In heaven, Lucas would be beautiful. He’d speak a language everyone understood” (8). Later Lucas is described as “a stranger, a citizen of no place” (12). Cunningham here anticipates his later theme of the “unhomely” where one feels a stranger within the home as well. Upon return to his home, Lucas pays attention to the iconography of loss in his home: portraits and photographs of his other dead brother, his uncle and his grandmother (8-9). (There was also Brendan, ‘dead before he was born,” 32.) They would have to “make room for Simon’s picture, but the wall was full,” Lucas notes (9). Later in the bed he had once shared with Simon, he can smell Simon’s smells and thereby perceives his dead brother’s presence beside him, a ‘smell that resembled bread, but was not that” (9). Simon, Lucas believes, “was with them still” (10).1

Cunningham, I suggest, also underscores the sense of the “unhomely” by making the parents almost dead. The father is dependent on a breathing machine and the mother spends her entire day sleeping or in a somnambulant state. His father “had been turned to leather” after years in the tannery (11); “he was leather, with jewels for eyes” (11). His “mind was leather too” (11). His mother “was vanishing gradually” over the years (26), and is now only “a face on a pillow” (26). Lucas himself is described as a “changeling child, goblin-faced, with frail heart and mismatched eyes” (32). Lucas thinks this of himself: “he should have been the first to die but had somehow outlived them all” (32). Catherine herself is becoming someone else, “a statue of herself, an effigy” (64). Even the face of Dan, Lucas” fellow-worker, “resembled Catherine’s face” (83). Cunningham’s descriptions of the changing faces of characters often render them indistinguishable from each other (Dan/Catherine), or from objects around them (Lucas” father’s face). They each become at once unknowable and remain familiar to Lucas” perceptions: they are the same and not quite the same any more.

This is not about the ghostly, it is about the perception of the living and the experience of the dead, or the not-there. The home becomes the space where Lucas perceives the continued presence of Simon. This perception renders the home at once “homely” because Lucas had lived with his parents and brother here, and “unhomely” because his brother is not obviously “living” there, and parents live in near-death states. The home is the space of losses, and of perceived continued presences, but life-less.

In sharp contrast, Cunningham bestows upon the machinery and the factory, animation and life. The room where the machines are kept “was full of steady, creaturely life” (14). They were “not inanimate” (19), and Lucas wonders whether the machines love, think and admire humans (19). The humans themselves had “relinquished their citizenship, they had immigrated to the works,” and their lives consisted of “one act, performed over and over and over again” (29). This is the loss of “home” and the appropriation, or perception, of a new place as “home.” Incidentally, what Lucas helps manufacture in the factory is “housings” (17).

Cunningham’s home-as-loss theme reaches its climax when he thus animates the machinery. All machines in the first narrative carry Simon’s voice: his father’s breathing machine (44, 45), the factory machines (37-8, 43) and the gramophone (41). Lucas himself functions, at time, as a gramophone – through which Walt Whitman is heard (51). The hospital to which Lucas is taken “is like the works [the factory]” (79). In each case listed here we see an instantiation of an uncanny where, as Freud put it, the uncanny is a “feeling in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts” (395). Simon’s voice in the machine is a typical – or rather stereotypical, as Freud himself noted – of the uncanny but no less powerful for that. The dead reanimates (reanimation, Freud tells us, is an uncanny theme, 400) the machine in the first narrative, even as a human “spirit” animates the android in the third, and the human child functions as an automaton in the second.

In this, the first narrative, we see the loss within the home, a lessening of the home as its inhabitants slowly dissolve, or die, where home becomes unhomely due to the continued presence of the dead, and the death-like state of the living. The living, with whom Lucas leads his life, are beginning to look like somebody else. We have already noted Lucas” perception of his father as something made of leather and his mother is vanishing, Dan’s resemblance to Catherine, and Catherine herself beginning to look like a statue. The first narrative is entirely devoted to the home that becomes increasingly strange even as other places begin to take on animated appearance. Those who constitute the immediacy of Lucas’ known world – his parents, Catherine – begin to dissolve. The uncanny here is Lucas’ perception that his familiar and known world is increasingly a strange place. At one point in this narrative he believes Simon is in a strange land (42), but it seems to Lucas that it is he himself who is a stranger, and his supposedly known world is increasingly a strange place. The home-less is this space and moment of the uncanny where the home shades into the unhomely.


2. The Loss of Home

The home and its loss constitute Cunningham’s uncanny in the second narrative. It opens, like the first narrative, with the theme of home and the people within. The anonymous caller, one of the killer children, tells Cat “I’m in the family. We gave up our names” (102). This is a proleptic moment, for when the narrative ends Cat would also be part of this family, a fugitive with her “second Luke,” seeking the anonymity of an unfamiliar place. An extended family with no locus, or house, suggests an outward movement, beyond any dwelling or family. Thus the very idea of home as a space is reconfigured because children and family are scattered, become fugitives, or simply do not know each other.

The home/unheimlich binary is played out first as a resemblance theme. We meet it very early in the nondescript character of Fred. Fred is one of the many under-employed actors whose principal impersonation is that of a waiter. In an excellent instance of the uncanny emerging out of the familiar (as Freud argued), Fred, writes Cunningham, “was becoming what he’d once pretended to be: a wisecracking waiter” (108). Fred “repeats” in real life the role he has played several times. Cat’s boyfriend Simon is good looking enough to have been “fresh off the assembly line of whatever corporation produced the Great American Beauties,” and is more like an “exiled prince restored to his true home” (111), and thus familiar enough as a general “American beauty” while being just Simon. When the boy, one of the child-bombers, calls Cat, he ‘sounded white” (154).

This sense of assembly-line repetition is also figured in the motif of the bowl. The bowl is something Lucas presents to Catherine as a gift in the first narrative. In the second narrative the bowl reappears as a gift Cat buys for Simon. The woman who sells the bowl to Cat in the second narrative and who “was as wan and worn-looking as her merchandise,” is described as the “ruler of the lost and inconsequential” and “might have been sitting here among these things for years” (159). If Simon is like an “exiled prince,” the woman is a “ruler” too. When Cat meets the “mother” of the killer children, she imagines in an uncanny moment that it was the same woman she bought the bowl from (168). In each case, the people Cat meets are at once familiar and arrestingly different, leaving her with a sense of repetition and doubling.

The loss of the family and the loss of the home to the “unhomely” is concomitant here with the expansion of the locus of the family. The killer children are scattered across the USA, and therefore, paradoxically do not have a home and are at home in the entire country. They are, quite literally, “at large” and unhoused.

The unhomely is brought home to Cat when she enters the apartment the children were raised in: “She [the old woman] brought up a family of little killers. She got custody of kids nobody wanted and brought them here. She’s been planning this for years” (174).

It is, as Cat discovers, a strange “home” for the homeless. The woman herself, Cat says, “is a nobody … from nowhere” (174).

After this visit to the home where the children were reared, when Cat returns to her home, she discovers one of the killer children in her doorway. The child tells her “we move out […] we are not home anymore” (178). The once homeless kid, trained in another kind of home, now finds himself a new home – Cat’s. Cat tries to befriend the child, having first taken him – he has explosive strapped to his body – into her home. This involves talking about her dead son, Luke, first: “I have a little boy named Luke. but he’s not here now. He’s far away … He’s not coming back soon” (181). The boy then confesses that his former home, where he grew up (the place with Whitman quotes lining the walls) is “everything.” While growing up they were never allowed outside this home. And when they were ready for their crusade, the boy tells Cat, they “went outside” (182). And Luke is of course once again a “changeling … [a] goblin child” (185). The boy Cat rescues is brought up by a woman whom the children call “Walt Whitman” (once again the repetition theme asserts itself).

Their crusade, as the woman “Whitman” informs Cat and the other policemen, is to usher in the “end of days,” to “start over” the “injured world” (168-9). In other words, the world has to repeat itself, but repeat differently – another instance of the uncanny. The crusade, which makes use of these children as suicide-bombers, is a campaign to return to a pre-technological world. The children assembled for the job were always, as the woman “Whitman” proudly pronounces, homeless, or from abusive homes: one was abandoned in an alley, another was purchased from a prostitute and another had been a sex slave (169). And of the three children who are immediate protagonists of this narrative, the woman who brings them up believes that the last one might have “gone home,” though the location of this “home” is never clear (169).

In her explanation for this campaign, this woman “Whitman” tells Cat that the present world might seem like “heaven,” but is actually poisoned (171-2). The children are homeless and have been given “unhomely” homes where they are trained as terrorists. The ostensible reason is that the home of the human race – earth – that might seem like heaven is unfit for life any more. What the crusaders seek to do is to bring beauty back, to reverse the change, from a technologized back to a pastoral world (169, 189). This narrative reduces the emphasis on individual dwelling, opting to focus instead on the nation itself. The killer children are the inhabitants of this city/nation that seek to reconfigure the very nature of America, thus “lessening” the nature of the “homely” as it currently exists. They want to recast the home/America in an entirely new format, so to speak. They wish to make it an-other world, other than what it is now, restore it as the old home.

The uncanny is the doubling between home and the unhomely, and has two significant moments in this narrative. First, the homeless children are received into homes, or supposedly safer environments. But the larger aim here is to train these children in the safety of their foster homes to participate in a campaign. This campaign is driven by the belief that earth is not a safe home for the human race. The campaign headed by the crusader children is an attempt to return earth to conditions of pre-technological safety and beauty, i.e., to return it to older notions of “home.” Yet, the very violence of the crusade makes the earth and its cities unsafe, unhomely. The uncanny is this folding of the home and the unhomely, of the surreal shifts between the two.

The second moment that contributes to the uncanny and the “unheimlich” occurs towards the end of the narrative. Cat has turned fugitive with the killer child. She abandons her home with the child in tow. What she seeks is not home at all. In an extended description, we see the reiteration of this theme of home/unhomely:

Maybe she’d be able to rent them an apartment … They’d probably have to keep moving … if they kept moving, if they lived in enough places, then maybe they could manage to eradicate their pasts, become another woman with a child, trying to survive … There were so many people out there living anonymously. It was possible, it was not impossible, that they could join them. (194)

The children are scattered all over, and nobody keeps in touch, as the old woman, their “mother” complains (188).

The aim for her now, with the killer-child in her custody, Cat decides, is to lose a home and thereby gain one. Being “unhoused” is necessary for her and the child, who now has a new home. Once again, it is about perception: Cat’s perception that ‘she could bring [the boy] around” (195), save him and give him a home in anonymity, living in many places. The unheimlich here is her sense, her perception that the world would become their home.

Therefore when the boy tells her “now you’re in the family too,” she realizes what she has actually done. Her perception of the “home in the world” is smashed with a new vision: “She and the boy were hurtling toward the day when, with milk on the table and a dog browsing for scraps, her adopted son, her second Luke, the boy she had rescued, would decide that he finally loved her enough to murder her” (196). The savage irony of this canny moment should be emphasized. Cat expects her death to be in the precincts of her home, at the hands of her adopted son, her second Luke. This perception, or rather foresight, is of making a home to die in. She leaves her home in NYC to save the child, and she realizes that she will not feel “at home” anywhere in the world: for the child will one day kill her. Where she is headed is a place she will call “home,” but where she would never be at home for she foresees her death at the hands of the child she has adopted as her son. There is no explanation offered for her fears – the unheimlich functions as a nameless, unidentifiable fear – except for her experience of the child crusaders. The home she seeks is therefore always already unheimlich. She has been taken into the family of crusaders as well, without her knowledge, but with her consent when she adopts Luke, and her home is now the extensive, non-localized family of these killers.


3. A New Home

The final narrative of Specimen Days is set in a post-Apocalyptic America. This narrative is also the one where Cunningham explores the nature of earth as home, having moved beyond the individual home of Lucas in the first and NYC in the second. The third narrative is thus multilocational – moving outward from NYC York to Denver to earth itself. It therefore opens out the question of home to something more than dwelling or families to address larger questions of the planet as home and of the human race as family.

The uncanny in this narrative is essentially the consequence of the mixing of the foreign with the familiar and the resultant reconstitution of the “home” and the family.” Cunningham focuses on the occupants of the earth “family” and the subject of “foreignness” and belonging (which might be read as “at-homeness” as well). The occupants or residents of home/earth are of three principal species: aliens, humans and androids. Earth, in other words, is now “home” to all of them. Familiar and distinct, the changing nature of the family results in the changing nature of the very idea of home. It is in this blurring of familiar/strange that the homely/unhomely effect is generated. What is the earth home to? – this is the question Cunningham’s third narrative throws up. I first examine the nature of the inhabitants of earth-as-home.

The Nadians, we are told, came to earth hoping for “more” (218), that is “more” than what they have back “home” in Nadia. They, thinks Simon, “must have imagined something better than servants, nannies, street sweepers” (218). When he asks Catareen ‘do you miss Nadia?,” her response is a clear “no.” To which he says: “It’s your home. It’s where you come from,” and Catareen replies: “Nothing there” (264-5). Nadia as home for Catareen is clearly unhomely, and this startles Simon. The implication in Simon’s response is that Nadia being “home,” it surely ought to mean something for her and this earth ought to be just an exile to a foreign land. In Simon’s perception Catareen seems more at home on earth than on Nadia.

The androids are constructed to be like humans. Human technology is advanced enough to make robots as humanoid as possible, in what is surely a (technological) uncanny doubling of the human as the foreign and vice versa. The android, “programmed” to do certain things, does not quite work like an automaton. Simon tells Catareen: “I’m programmed to be something that resembles kind” (221). The uncanny here is the perception others, including the extra-terrestrial Catareen, have of Simon because he is as good as a human. Kindness becomes Simon-the-android’s defining feature. His resemblance to the human race proceeds from this (uncanny) feature of being kind. While he remains a machine (and we recall here Lucas” perception of the machines as making human sounds in the first narrative), he has approximated to the human here when he spouts poetry. Simon represents the technological uncanny. In this the human self is not an autonomous self anymore, as one critic put it: “We are animated and agitated by a power or program that seems to violate our most intuitive sense of self-determination” (Johnson 131-2). Feelings – affect – are manipulated by programs and codes. In Cunningham we have an android that is akin to a human due to these codes and programs. The technological uncanny here is primarily about the perception of foreignness and foreign bodies. If in the second narrative the killer children are part of a family, here in the third, the androids and alien species have also merged into the human family.

Interestingly, the android perceives himself/his-self as split. Simon admits that his voice, cadence, vocabulary, modulation, slang and his personality are “programmed” so that he seems “more human” (266). But there exists a gap between what he thinks and what he articulates: “I listen to myself speak … and it’s strange to me. It doesn’t match what I hear inside my head …” (266). The gap or “divide,” he recognizes, exists in both himself and Catareen, “between who you appeared to be and who you knew yourself to be” (266). The android perceives himself as divided between his thoughts and his enunciations. He is familiar to the humans due to his uncanny resemblance to them, but he is a foreigner to himself. Simon is at once familiar and foreign as an android. Catareen is the foreign “body” who is distinctive in appearance, but can function as a (human?) nurse, a mother and a care-giver (she takes care of human children).

Earth remains a home for the humans because these other forms have been assimilated to the human order. The foreign here has been subordinated to the human. Their foreignness is no more a threat because the human race has managed to assert control over them. The resemblance to older forms of habitation and community remains and is striking even though – and this is the source of the “unhomely” – the members of the home are very different.

The uncanny in its Scottish etymological origins, Nicholas Royle points out, offers us “uncertainties at the origin concerning colonization and the foreign body, a mixing of what is at once old and long-familiar with what is strangely “fresh” and new; a pervasive linking of death, mourning and spectrality” (12). In Cunningham’s narrative the “old and long-familiar” is of course the human race. What is added to it is the android (almost human) and the alien. Cunningham complicates it by suggesting that the alien race, the Nadians, was even more primitive than the humans had envisaged: “a people who in ten thousand years had failed to come up with a written language. Who lived in huts made of dried mud and pulled each around in wooden carts” (265). What Catareen represents then is the earlier stage of human evolution: what humanity once was. Earth is now home, therefore, to the incredibly advanced android and the primitive, animal-like Nadians (who hunt and eat animals raw).

When Catareen, Simon and Luke – again a deformed child (250) – sit down to eat, it recalls for Simon a movie clip: ‘Simon had seen a vid once, ancient footage of a family engaged like this” (259). Later, Simon has an uncanny moment again: “this was a new sensation. It seemed to arise from the pure strangeness of finding himself at the edge of a circle of water … with a lizard woman and a deformed boy” (262). The disturbing familiarity of the scene proceeds from its simulation of a human family, in its uneasy doubling of a nuclear family. The “homely” and the familial is asserted here in this little ritual of eating and staying together even though, as Simon notes, the “family” consists of one android, one human but deformed child and a lizard. Their ritual, Simon realizes, is a simulation of a video – itself a simulation – he had once watched. The technological uncanny has asserted itself once again, with the staging of a “family” scene akin to a simulation, with the unfamiliar species now simulating the human family of the video.

Having ensured that the uncanny is the consequence of this uneasy reconfiguration of the family in the earth-home, Cunningham now shifts the focus to the space of this home itself.

The uncanny is the confused perspective Simon and the others have of what earth has become. In the post-apocalyptic world of NYC and the USA in this narrative, all places are similar. On their escape “the landscape was unchanging … all so similar that Simon worried they might have doubled back on themselves unwittingly” (243). Places resemble each other here, and lose their individuality as they all dissolve into urban sprawl. All places are under surveillance, or on the brink of dissolution into chaos. Now, the word “heimlich,” as Freud points out, has a double meaning: it designates what is familiar and congenial and on the other hand what is concealed and therefore sinister (Tatar 1981: 169). What this earth-home reveals is the familiarity of families and co-existence of the foreign and the human. Yet it also conceals the horror of a surveillance society and the ruthless tyrannical rule that governs all aspects of a high-tech world. Simon watches his friend and fellow-android, Marcus, mercilessly killed by the drones. His own existence is at risk because he was Marcus’ friend. The rules governing aliens and androids are frequently changed. Finally, earth continues to believe in slavery, and the Nadians have been effectively become the slave-race to humanity. Thus the surface normalcy of the familiar space of earth-home masks the oppressive conditions that govern it. Beneath the familiar is the sinister control mechanism. Earth-home as home is unliveable because of this loss of freedom. The result is: the humans seek a new home.

The climactic moments of the third narrative are all about going home, or rather going elsewhere to set up a new home. The alien Catareen lies dying, while the process of her death is described as “going home” (299). The Lowell group leaves for a new planet (and, in an uncanny repetition, connections are drawn to the Mayflower, the iconic ship of first European migrants that arrived to set up a new home in the “New World,” the Americas, 293) hoping to set up a new home. Luke wants Simon to leave with them because he has “come to feel familiar to me” (289).2 This quest is in fact for the familiar, for the homely.

Emory Lowell informs Simon that they have had visions of the “new” (home) planet, Paumanok (a name from Whitman again): a “world of mountains and rivers … enormous fruit trees … brilliantly colored birds and small, intelligent animals that are like rabbits … a small fishing village … warm rain” (278-9). The visions are familiar to all, as is the landscape of the new world which resembles the earth-home and is therefore “homely.” The quest and the voyage are therefore for a home that is at once like the earth and not like it at all. The earth having become unliveable is not home anymore and is therefore, unfamiliar from their memories of its past. What is also important is that this new home will seek to replicate the existing one (on earth) but is also distinctive because it will now be composed of genetic hybrids, half Nadian, half human:

The baby’s skin was the color of a celery stalk. She … had the big, round Nadian eyes and the agitated Nadian nostrils, but in her the eyes were a creamy coffee brown and the nose an Emoryish minibeak upon which the nostrils perched like sea urchins on a sliver of rock. She had ears, perfectly human but dwarfed, like tiny shells. Atop her smooth green head stood a silky fur of fine white-gold hair. (285)

The new “family” would be uncannily like a human one, and yet not. The new home on Paumanok would at once recall the earth, and be entirely new.


4. Whitman, the Cultural Uncanny and Cosmopolitanism

Thus far I have explored Cunningham’s concerns with the home, the homely and the unheimlich. I conclude with an aspect of the uncanny which, I think, informs the entire novel – that of the cultural uncanny. While the repetition of characters, motifs (the bowl, the horse) and themes clearly points to the uncanny, that is not what detains me here in the conclusion.

The novel is an elegy. Elegies embody both desire and the uncanny because both are constituted by a lack (Kennedy ?pp). What Cunningham presents to us is a cultural uncanny that is at once, also, a mourning for the loss of cultural pasts (homes?) and therefore a lack and a concomitant desire for its retrieval. This cultural past’s loss, and subsequent return (as a cultural repressed) is manifest in the figure of Whitman himself (66-9). Though Whitman “appears” to Lucas in the first narrative, it is his poetry that is the uncanny, ghostly presence through the other two.

Walt Whitman and his epic poem works in fragments through the novel. Nobody who hears quite understands it, and the people who enunciate or recite do not know why they do so. Mousoutzanis argues that “the quotes from Whitman do not serve to underscore a given situation, or even carry it to another level, but sound mostly nonsensical, ironic, or even comical” (139). But this is surely a reductive reading of the way Whitman and the poem work through the narratives. I offer two other interpretations of the poetry, relating both to Cunningham’s larger concerns with “home” and “unhomely.”

If Leaves of Grasswas the United States,” as the Whitman scholar Rita Dunn tells Cat in the second narrative (145, emphasis in original), then, tragically, America is/has no home for Whitman any longer. Whitman, one could say, was unhoused in the country that he was trying to structure in his poem. The country does not contain the poem any more, and the poem itself has no country. Interestingly, Cunningham shows Whitman as uncontainable as well, circulating in the form of occasional quotes rather than extended chunks of poetry.

Whitman and Leaves of Grass represent the novel’s “mythic anthropology.” Central to the uncanny is what Freud identifies as a return to unformed primitivism (Freud 393-7), and what Hélène Cixous refers to as its “mythic anthropology,” a “foundation of gods and demons” (Cixous 539).The uncanny is also connected, Cixous adds, to a series of anecdotal examples, literary and biographical mini stories (539). This mythic anthropology is the continuing presence of Whitman as the cultural uncanny in Cunningham’s novel. He is the repressed in the cultural unconscious of American modernization.

This reading of Whitman as a cultural uncanny is invited by the way “he” circulates in the text. The old woman who grooms the killer children tells Cat during her interrogation in the second narrative: “if we can return to a time like Whitman’s, maybe we can love the world again” (189). The poetry, she says, was not a message; what it does is to give “a sense of beauty” (189). The androids were programmed with poetry so that they would have a “moral sense” (281). Thus, in each of these cases Whitman is a symbol of something we had and now lost – a revenant, or a spectre – haunting (and hence, “housed”) in the lives and minds of the characters, even if this haunting is a programmed one (as in the case of the android Simon in the third narrative).

The uncanny in the Victorian period was linked, Allan Lloyd Smith argues, to ‘specific features of culture, such as imperialism and the fear of what is brought back from the colonies” (Smith 285). In Cunningham the cultural uncanny is the revenants and remnants of such “foreign” features from cultural and national pasts within the children, Lucas and Simon. If the uncanny is, as Freud defines it, “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (369-70), the cultural uncanny represented in the Whitman figure/ghost in Cunningham terrifies because it reminds the humans of their past and of what they had lost. The retrieval of Whitman by the messianic group of killer children in the second narrative is terrifying in the way the cultural uncanny takes hold of the present by offering an idealized past. The cultural uncanny calls for a repetition of the past – a repetition that is inseparable from the cycle of violence it unleashes.

Whitman becomes, in the novel, the foreign within the characters. It is a shared foreignness because it returns spectrally from a culture’s collective past. If the past is the famous “foreign country,” then Whitman is the foreign element who is inside the consciousness of Cunningham’s characters. I propose that his poetry represents the unknowable but palpable within all consciousness, from human children to androids. Whitman’s “foreignness” is made clear early in the novel when Lucas realizes that he is speaking a strange language to the world. Simon complains that he is ‘sick” of quoting verse that he does not understand. Nobody understands the poetry because it is now foreign to the very culture that produced it. If Whitman has been unhoused then the house does not understand Whitman anymore. Jacqueline Rose in her review of the novel suggests that Cunningham’s question is essentially this: “What does it mean to enter into the mind, or body, of somebody else?” (Rose 2005). Yet, I think, the question here is larger than either “mind” or “body.” Rose’s reading might be reformulated as “What does it mean for Whitman, or a cultural figure from the past, to enter into the collective mind, or cultural body, of a later culture?” Cunningham, I think, suggests a persistence of the past, as a foreign “figure” or “voice” in the wake of the apocalypse as well.

Whitman then represents an unformed primitivism, the foreign, that is characteristic of the cultural uncanny. The fragments of the poetry that are recited by Luke, the killer children and by Simon constitute the aesthetic and cultural memory of a race in Cunningham’s novel. They represent “home.” The lack of definition and the fragmentation that Mousoutzanis sees as generating a comic effect achieves, in my view, quite the opposite. The poetry represents the mourning for cultural loss and the quest for the homely, the aesthetic, and the moral. It also represents the desire for the foundational myths of cultural identity – here Whitman – and which continue to haunt consciousness as the cultural uncanny. Laura Miller in her review comes closest to describing this cultural uncanny of Cunningham’s text when she writes: “he [Cunningham] sees Whitman as the inclusive, expansive, loving and slightly crazed spirit of what’s best about America” (2005). The ‘spirit” of America is indeed what Whitman is, but one whose “home” is under threat.

Cunningham’s novel, written in the wake of 9/11, expresses a certain cultural anxiety about the nature of “home” itself. It examines, as we have seen, the uneasy shifts occurring within the home due to the arrival of machinery (the first narrative), the terrors of an unjust modern age (the second narrative) and the inevitable collapse of civilization on earth as we know it due to the progress of modernity and traumatic history (the third narrative). By deploying the unheimlich as a unifying principle, Cunningham draws attention to the ways in which we have defined and subverted the nature and condition of the “home” and the “foreign,” and calls upon us to worry about the loss, or lessening, of not only the immediate home but of the earth itself. As he does this, he also offers an entirely new vision of the nature of this home in the future, a vision informed by Walt Whitman.

The use of Whitman, the last of the great American “inclusivist” poets, I suggest, marks Cunningham’s attempt to move beyond the narrow definitions of home and family. He is moving toward a vision of a more inclusive image of earth-as-home and of the inhabitants of that home. It is not only about America; it is about, in other words, cosmopolitanism and a universal species-citizenship.

Whitman celebrated, the academic Rita Dunn tells Cat in the second narrative, “everybody and everything” (145). As the novel progresses we see the very idea of home and family expanding outward. By the time the novel nears its end we see androids, aliens and humans in a state of co-existence, even if contentious and fractious. There is, of course, considerable anxiety about this co-existence, as embodied in Simon’s comment in the penultimate paragraph of the tale: “The earth, that is sufficient, I do not want the constellations any nearer, I know they are very well where they are, I know they suffice for those who belong to them” (305). Cunningham is debating here the nature of citizenship itself: who belongs?

Dunn suggests that Whitman refuses to define “belonging” narrowly:

In Whitman there are no insignificant lives. There are mill owners and mill workers, there are great ladies and prostitutes, and he refuses to favor any of them. He finds them all worthy and fascinating. He finds them all miraculous. (146)

Every body belongs, in Dunn’s interpretation of Whitman.

Dunn then tells Cat in response to her query whether Whitman was “patriotic” (i.e., American): “It’s not quite the right term for Whitman … I think not. A great poet is never anything quite so provincial” (146). Cunningham pushes, I propose, this Whitmanesque reading further: to belong to the earth alone, or for only some to belong, is a “provincial” thought in this day and age. Significantly, when Specimen Days ends, the quest for a new home proceeds from an enlarged “family” of the human, and a more inclusive one, which now has androids, alien species and human-alien hybrids. In this, Cunningham moves beyond the notion of earth as home, America as home, and the human species as “one” family. In what might be read as a cosmopolitan manifesto for the twenty first century, Cunningham uses Whitman’s inclusiveness and non-provincial love for all species, races and interspecies beings as a critique of the question and concern over “home.”

The nature and limits of “home” are under question here, in the refiguring of the family itself. It must be noted that the humans continue to believe in slavery in the novel: the Nadians are little more than servants here on earth. The only one who responds to this different species is the android, who is at once like and unlike humans not only in his emotional make-up but in his responsibility towards the dying alien. In what is surely a not-so-subtle indictment of the human race, Cunningham shows the android as effecting a true species response. In the “home” of tomorrow, we might have to be more accommodating to other species, and not reduce them to slaves, but to respect them. Donna Haraway points out that the biological term ‘species” is also related etymologically to respecere, to look with respect, to behold, to notice, to pay attention to: “polite greeting, to constituting the polis, where and when species meet” and thus showing the mutuality of species (Haraway 102).

The third narrative in Cunningham’s novel does address this question of mutuality of species and respect for the other. Donna Haraway describes the idea of companion species this way:

To knot companion [“companion” derives from cum panis, to share bread] and species together in encounter, in regard and respect, is to enter the world of becoming with, where, who, and what are, are precisely what are at stake … Species interdependence is the name of the worlding game on Earth, and that game must be one of response and respect … Not much is excluded in the needed play – not technologies, commerce, organisms, landscapes, peoples, practices … I am who I become with companion species. (102)

When the humans and Nadians produce hybrids in the last narrative of the tale, we see the future as one where racial purity becomes an untenable idea. On the renewed earth, or on Paumanok, species evolution will be marked by a species miscegenation, a symbiogenesis, in which species cooperation rather than competition is the agent of all evolution (a vision Laurel Bollinger sees in the work of Octavia Butler as well, 2010).

If Whitman were to be the cultural uncanny that survives within American consciousness as a trace then it might just be possible to see his continued relevance in an enlarged context. Cunningham, by refusing provinciality in Whitmanesque style, calls for this cosmopolitanism of citizenship because we are all now companion species, becoming together. Perhaps the uncanny is the foreign in all of us.


Works Cited

  • Bollinger, Laurel. “Symbiogenesis, Selfhood, and Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 37. 110, Part 1 (2010): 34-53.
  • Cixous, Hélène. “Fiction and Its Fantoms: A Reading of Freud’s Das Unheimliche (The ‘Uncanny’).” New Literary History 7 (1976): 525-48.
  • Cunningham, Michael. Specimen Days. London: Harper Perennial, 2006.
  • Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny.’” In Collected Papers. Trans. Joan Riviere. Vol. 4. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1971. 368-407.
  • Giblett, Rodney James. Postmodern Wetlands: Culture, History, Ecology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1996.
  • Haraway, Donna. “Encounters with Companion Species: Entangling Dogs, Baboons, Philosophers, and Biologists.” Configurations 14 (2006): 97-114.
  • Johnson, Christopher. “Ambient Technologies, Uncanny Signs.” Oxford Literary Review 21 (1999): 117-134.
  • Kennedy, David. “The Beyond of the Subject – Mourning, Desire and the Uncanny.” Textual Practice 23.4 (2009): 581-598.
  • Miller, Laura. Review of Specimen Days, by Michael Cunningham. Salon.com. 24 June 2005. 10 June 2011. <http://www.salon.com/books/review/2005/06/24/cunningham>
  • Mousoutzanis, Aris. “Uncanny Repetition, Trauma, and Displacement in Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days.” Critical Survey 21.2 (2009): 129-141.
  • Rose, Jacqueline. “Entryism,” London Review of Books 27.18. 22 September 2005. 10 June 2011. <http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n18/jacqueline-rose/entryism>
  • Royle, Nicholas. 2003. The Uncanny. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003.
  • Smith, Alan Lloyd. “The Phantoms of Drood and Rebecca: The Uncanny Reencountered through Abraham and Torok’s “Cryptonymy.” Poetics Today 13.2 (1992): 285-308.
  • Tatar, Maria M. “The Houses of Fiction: Toward a Definition of the Uncanny.” Comparative Literature 33 (1981): 167-82.



1 Smell is integral to the uncanny (Giblett 32-4) because it “can in a split-second drop us out of the erstwhile familiarity of our present into the strange, painful and/or pleasurable, impossible country of the past” (Royle 140).

2 The passengers to the new world are referred to as “pilgrims” in the novel (285).