by Michael Cunningham
Oh, that great search for affection, our clamoring for a spark which makes us feel Of This World — where would our art be without it? We are love, we are in love, and we love the moments that remind us. Michael Cunningham takes that desire and presents a compelling portrait of loneliness management in his latest novel, By Nightfall.
Peter and Rebecca Harris have, by all appearances, a comfortable life in New York. He runs an art gallery, and she works in magazine publishing, and they have an adult daughter living in Boston. However, their daughter has become distant and depressed, and Peter and Rebecca wonder subconsciously if their marriage isn’t just something they’ve grown used to over time, as anything else would be too much of a change. Rebecca has grown quiet and seemingly indifferent to his work, even if it means he takes off for meetings on the days they are supposed to spend together.
The trouble is...
There’s no trouble. How could he, how could any member of the .00001 percent of the prospering population, dare to be troubled? Who said to Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no shame, sir?” You don’t have to be a vicious right-wing zealot to entertain the question.
It’s your life, quite possibly your only one. Still you find yourself having a vodka at three a.m., waiting for your pill to kick in, with time ticking through you and your own ghost already wandering among your rooms.
The trouble is...
He can feel something, rolling at the edges of the world.
Then, Rebecca’s twenty-three year old brother, Ethan, comes to stay. He’s a recovering addict, considered brilliant by his family, if only he’d get his act together. His nickname, “Mizzy,” is short for “The Mistake,” as he appeared almost out of nowhere so many years after his siblings. He is the very essence of beautiful and troubled, and at first, Peter is unsure of how to feel about him. Still, even from the first afternoon in which Mizzy appears, Peter can’t help but notice the burning creeping upwards from his thighs, his gut and into his chest.
He hasn’t put on a shirt. There’s no denying his resemblance to the Rodin bronze — the slender, effortless masculinity of youth, the extravagant nonchalance of it; that sense that beauty is in fact the natural human condition, and not the rarest of mutations.
Mizzy’s arrival coincides with Peter’s questioning of where he’d like his gallery to go — the sort of artists he’d like to represent, the line between representing money-makers and passion-cultivators, and where he would like his standing in the art world to be. He’s found that he’s had trouble getting excited about much of the work that comes his way, and he’s eager to rediscover the exhilaration he used to feel. His observances of the world are all in relation to other art — theater, sculpture, pop radio — as only a person who has lived his life identifying with the creative world can. I’ve read criticisms of By Nightfall saying that Cunningham relies too heavily on these references, and that they are superfluous, but I disagree. For every person who can talk about Rodin or Arthur Miller, there’s another who can relate any moment in life to something they saw on The Simpsons or Seinfeld. To reference them is not laziness — it is a realistic portrait of our modern train of thought and the way culture makes us feel less alone.
Though this is not my favorite of Cunningham’s novels — that honor goes to his first, A Home at The End of the World — I will say this: I did not need the first third of the book to really get into the story. For one thing, the book is only 238 pages long, and in order to be successful at that length, a writer really needs to jump right into it. Cunningham writes of lust and desire within just the first few pages, and after reading several rather chaste books in a row, I welcomed the change of pace. I’ve never disliked any of his novels, but I was glad that this one didn’t take one hundred pages of revving before the full weight of it hit me. His last, Specimen Days, was a little like that, even though in the end I liked it a lot.
By Nightfall poses questions about success, how we define love and beauty, and what our basest instincts say about us when we are in peril. Michael Cunningham is an exceedingly good writer, more than deserving of the accolades he’s received over the years. I love any book that makes me identify and sympathize with a character through his/her bad decisions and confusion, since when we are truly honest with ourselves, we know we are capable of the very same things.
Full disclosure: Thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who sent me this book at my request. As with any review copy, I shall continue to be fair with my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.