I was given The Hours, Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel. My mother, not a very avid reader, bought it in an airport and handed it to me when I was between books one day. "It’s all about Virginia Woolf," she said. "I think you’ll like it." While it’s true that the experience of reading The Hours is richer if you have read Mrs. Dalloway, the acclaimed Woolf novel Cunningham writes The Hours after, the book is a marvel either way.
The Hours tells three stories simultaneously:
- In 1990s New York, Clarissa Vaughn prepares to host a party for her friend and former love interest Richard, a gay poet physically and mentally ravaged by AIDS.
- In 1950’s suburban America, a timid housewife struggles in an unhappy marriage and confining social role, finding her only comfort in reading Mrs. Dalloway.
- And in 1920s England, Virginia Woolf begins to compose Mrs. Dalloway.
Cunningham tells compelling stories about queer lives. But he also queers the stories he tells, finding spaces for taboo relationships and alternative family structures that subtly show another way of being. It helps that his prose is haunting, that he has an eye for heartbreakingly minute detail, that his characters are fully-rendered flawed beings. Cunningham earns my pick for the 25 Books Project because he works so skillfully with characters who are marginalized in too much contemporary fiction, and because, in The Hours and his recent Specimen Days, he collages literary tropes and genres in a way that is playful without being pretentious, serious while primarily lyric. His dissent from the forms and values of mainstream culture is lyrical, and The Hours is a fine introduction to this important writer.