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The Hours ()

Pulitzer Prize (Fiction)

This much praised, award-winning novel is essentially an extended riff on Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, which is unreadable, while The Hours is merely unenjoyable.  After an opening scene where Woolf commits suicide by walking into a river with a rock in her pocket, Cunningham intertwines three storylines : a day in the life of Virginia Woolf as she is at work on Mrs. Dalloway; a day in the life of Laura Brown, a pregnant suburban Los Angeles mother with a three year old son, a war hero husband, and a desperate longing to escape her suffocating life; and a day in the life of Clarissa Vaughn, a middle aged lesbian book editor in Greenwich Village who is planning a party for her friend and former lover Richard, who is dying of AIDs but has just won a prestigious poetry prize.  Both Clarissa and his Mother are central characters in Richard's poetry and his novel.

Beyond the fact that they are all gay and suicidal, these are simply not characters who think and behave like the rest of us.  At one point Clarissa, who was nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway years before by Richard, meets her friend Walter, a despised author of gay romance novels, who dresses too youthfully for people's taste, and adorns himself with beautiful young men :

    'Nice to see you,' Walter says.  Clarissa knows--she can practically see--that Walter is, at this
    moment, working mentally through a series of intricate calibrations regarding her personal
    significance.  Yes, she's the woman in the book, the subject of a much-anticipated novel by an
    almost legendary writer, but the book failed, didn't it?  It was curtly reviewed; it slipped silently
    beneath the waves.  She is, walter decides, like a deposed aristocrat, interesting without being
    particularly important.  She sees him arrive at his decision.  She smiles.

Now we do all know the Walters of the world, the coworker whose attention wanders if a boss walks by and you can see him thinking, "Hey, there's someone more important I could be talking to."  But do you befriend these people and invite them to parties?  Of course not, they are too transparently phony.  The problem in this book however is that everyone is phony; they are all playing roles; after all, homosexuality itself is ultimately little more than a pose.  Virginia Woolf has only a tenuous grip on sanity; Laura Brown shares a brief moment of passion with another woman and longs to escape her marriage; Richard plays at being the great poet, though he and Clarissa are conscious of the fact that much of his reputation rests on his homosexuality and his disease; Clarissa, despite decades of a loving relationship with another woman, loves Richard, who, despite his decades of homosexuality, loves her.  This is a world of artificiality.  People do and say things for effect, like reading and praising Virginia Woolf, and not because the actually believe in what they say or do.  Clarissa has never had a Quarter Pounder--it simply isn't done--who do you know whose identity is held hostage to the idea that you can't eat at McDonalds?  More importantly, who do know, and like, that looks down on eating at McDonalds.

If you plan on reading the book, please read no farther, the following will betray some of the key "surprises" of the plot.  several reviewers referred to the surprising ways in which Cunningham ties the three plots together at the end of the book, but they can be surprising only to someone who is not paying attention.  Richard naturally turns out to be the Virginia Woolf doppelganger and upon his suicide, the funeral is attended by his mother, Laura Brown.  (An aside : one of the central activities that is used to show the emptiness of Laura's life back in the 40s is her rather sketchy attempt to bake a cake for her husband's birthday.  This, combined with her unhappy mewlings, was so reminiscent of the horrid song MacArthur Park--"someone left a cake out in the rain and I don't thing that I can take it, cause it took so long to bake it..."--that I found it hard to take her seriously.) The title, The Hours (which was also the original title of Mrs. Dalloway), and the essential outlook of the book are explained when Clarissa finds Richard perched on a windowsill in his apartment, about to leap to his death :

    He says, 'I don't know if I can face this.  You know.  The party and the ceremony, and then the
    hour after that, and the hour after that.'

    'You don't have to go the party.  You don't have to go to the ceremony.  You don't have to do
    anything at all.'

    'But there are still the hours, aren't there?  One and then another, and you get through that one
    and then, my god, there's another.'

Without sounding to harsh, let me just state my opinion that if you really think life is so awful that it just consists of a struggle to get through the hours of the day, you probably should commit suicide; it's hard to see how you are any great loss to the rest of us.


Grade: (F)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Michael Cunningham (
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of The Hours by Michael Cunningham
    -ARTICLE: Is the Novel Dying? Hope and Despair From Eight Who Should Know (WILLIAM GRIMES, NY Times)
    -AWARD: 'The Hours' Takes Fiction Pulitzer (David Streitfeld ,  Washington Post Staff Writer)
    -BOOK SITE: for The Hours (fsb Associates)
    -BOOK SITE: for The Hours (Book Browse)
    -READING GROUP GUIDE: The Hours by Michael Cunningham (St. Martins)
    -REVIEW: of The Hours by Michael Cunningham (Michael Wood, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  The Hours   By Michael Cunningham   (Jameson Currier, Washington Post Book World)
    -REVIEW: of The Hours (Matt Chapuran, Literal Mind)
    -REVIEW: of Flesh and Blood By Michael Cunningham (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of FLESH AND BLOOD By Michael Cunningham (Meg Wolitzer, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD By Michael Cunningham (Joyce Reiser Kornblatt, NY Times Book Review)

    -see links located with Brothers Judd reviews of her work

    -ESSAY: Out of the Closet, Onto the Bookshelf  (Edmund White, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Critic's Notebook; For Gay Writers, Sad Stories (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)