A Pandemic Novel That Never Says ‘Pandemic’

DAY, by Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham’s new novel, “Day,” visits a family on April 5 in 2019, 2020 and 2021 — before, during and after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which shadows the book although the words “Covid” and “pandemic” never appear.

At the core of the family’s dynamic is a love triangle, more or less platonic. Isabel, a photo editor with a “pugilistic jaw,” feels bad about having lost her erotic connection to her husband, Dan, a former rock ’n’ roller who has now grown “stocky and slightly, voluptuously soft,” but is fantasizing about a comeback. Both she and Dan consider her gay brother, Robbie, a sixth-grade teacher who lives alone in the attic of their brownstone, to be their closest friend.

The novel’s first April day, in 2019, finds Isabel apologizing to Robbie because she and Dan are about to evict him. Their children, a boy and a girl, have grown too old to continue sharing a bedroom, and they need to annex Robbie’s square footage. To soften the blow, Isabel recalls an old daydream. “I keep thinking about that house in the country we were going to buy,” she says. “We were going to have a dozen rooms, and a vegetable garden, and three or four dogs.” Robbie recalls that the idea came from her fifth-grade teacher, whom Isabel remembers as a “hippie.”

The dream is a familiar one in Cunningham’s oeuvre. In his first novel, “A Home at the End of the World,” a gay man, a bisexual man and a straight woman tried to raise a child in an upstate house. When Cunningham started writing fiction about gay and trans characters in the 1990s, queer people, still widely stigmatized, were much more visible in cities than in the countryside, where their apparent absence could be seen, perhaps confusedly, as offering a blank slate. A gay novelist could send his city characters out of town on a utopian impulse, imagining with them, however briefly, that the country might become a refuge where homosexuals and heterosexuals could live together in harmony.

That dream of concord still seems to haunt Cunningham’s characters decades later. Not many adult siblings, one of whom is about to evict the other, would be able to banter as amiably as Isabel and Robbie do. But if the kindness between Cunningham’s characters stretches beyond strict verisimilitude, it’s part of their charm. The nervous, meandering dialogue, witty without being aggressively so, is pleasant to listen in on.

The hitch is that his characters seem to have trouble working up enough anger to spark the éclaircissements that people sometimes need in order to see their way forward. Dan’s brother, for example, is told early on that he’s no longer welcome in the life of a woman whose baby he is the biological father of. He was originally supposed to be no more than a sperm donor, but the baby’s mother let him drift into her and her child’s life for a while, and now she’s decided that he’s not quite reliable enough when helping out with child care and that he’s making himself a little more emotionally present than she’s comfortable with — somehow not attentive enough and too attentive at the same time. But although she recognizes that some of her words to him are cruel, neither she nor he says anything unforgivable, and at the end of the novel, he’s still in her orbit, not quite accepted, not quite banished.

As with anger, so with lust. A few characters have longings but nobody wants anybody too painfully or selfishly. Although Robbie has mild crushes on two straight men, his romances proper are in the novel’s past. In its present, having “neither money nor abs,” he focuses on an Instagram personality he has invented, with some help from his sister: a “sable-stubbled” 30-something gay pediatrician named Wolfe, who is cobbled together out of photos borrowed without permission and memories of an imaginary third sibling that he and Isabel daydreamed about as children.

On the novel’s Day 1, Robbie and Isabel imagine Wolfe, too, running away to an upstate house. By the following year, in 2020, Robbie himself has fled to Iceland, bringing the idea of Wolfe with him, and has become marooned there by the closing of international borders in the early months of the pandemic. He takes up residence in a cabin surrounded by treeless green — yet another home at the end of the world, though in this case the small, isolated wooden box also calls to mind a coffin.

In his solitude, Robbie begins to post photos of his own to the Wolfe account and to insert himself into Wolfe’s narrative, a conscious act of fictionalizing that made me wonder whether Cunningham was suggesting an analogy between the character’s Instagramming and his own novel-writing. Or maybe he’s commenting on what’s lost when novels are replaced by captioned lifestyle imagery? A critique seems implied when later posts, some written by Isabel, become less and less plausible and more and more sentimental — and garner higher like counts.

Day 3, in 2021, finds Isabel, too, out of town, having absconded to a dank upstate house beyond repair. “I think we need to look at places that aren’t so haunted by their own unhauntedness, if you know what I mean,” she tells a real estate agent. She has become willing, in other words, to live a life colored with memories and regrets. She may be haunted, as I’ve said, by the idea of a family life somehow beyond conflict. But in Iceland Robbie develops a cough reminiscent of the premonitory symptoms in so many AIDS novels and movies, and it occurred to me that the book may also be haunted by the early years of the AIDS crisis, some of the worst elements of which were reprised during the Covid pandemic.

By the end, the members of the family seem to have laid their ghosts to rest: They’re reconciled to moving forward and to living in conflicts that have come to seem almost jolly. The peace seems a little willed, but maybe a critique is implied there, too.

Caleb Crain is the author of the novels “Necessary Errors” and “Overthrow.”

DAY | By Michael Cunningham | Random House | 273 pp. | $28

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