Three years after his last book, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Michael Cunningham has returned with a new novel titled, By Nightfall. Set in post 9/11 New York, the story—though rather short of plot—is one of mid-life crisis in the world of a semi-wealthy art dealer named Peter Harris.
Harris is a mid-forties gallery owner living in a large Soho loft with his wife, Rebecca, founder-editor of a failing art journal. Their daughter has quit college to tend bar and live a rather sad life with an older female friend. This daughter Bea, less than comfortable with her father, leads him to think that he has always been a less than supportive father. On another level, Peter regrets the lost opportunities that have kept him a mid-level art dealer who may never have the chance to handle name artists. Passion is scant in this man’s life, but what there is of it blossoms from his appraisal of art, and the eternal power of beauty. The role of beauty and its meaning is a virtual totem in Peter’s life, and his thoughts are an ongoing inquiry into the relationship between beauty and meaning.
His wife has a baby brother whom they call ‘The Mistake’ or Mizzy, a name fraught with symbolism of a lot more than just a late birth in Rebecca’s family. Mizzy turns up for a stay with his sister and brother-in-law following another of his vague uncertain passages from drugs to rescue and back again. Cunningham stamps this character’s emptiness and pretense at depth by showing him holding at times an open copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a book he never seems to read from. Mizzy’s place in the novel is as an ideal of physical beauty, a catalyst to jar the protagonist from his stagnation, or impasse in the concerns of family and work. Order in Peter’s life is thus undone by the arrival of this undependable Adonis. Perhaps he is a beautiful ‘work of art,’ but one with destructive potential. Peter finds himself mesmerized by the young man’s beauty, and though troubled by the implications, longs to stare at, to touch him.
Mizzy maneuvers the besotted Peter into a position that guarantees his continued drug use will remain a secret from his sister, Rebecca. Unsure of his own sexuality, Peter considers throwing away all to pursue his wife’s brother. Interesting here is the contrast here between the character’s mid-life crisis and his teenager-like infatuation with Mizzy. Beauty can make fools of us all. And perhaps this is the purpose behind Cunningham’s use of a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Duino Elegies”—‘beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.’ Having exhausted Peter’s usefulness, the boy rebuffs his declarations of love, cadges plane fare from his sister and flies off to his next destination.
Peter and Rebecca, having seen through the veneer of their marriage, decide to remain together with a hope of restoring meaning to their lives together.
In his prize-winning book, The Hours, Cunningham used Virginia Woolfe’s Mrs Dalloway as a framework for his story. In his last book Walt Whitman was the springboard for his story. This time, we find repeated reference to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and the elder Aschenbach’s infatuation with the beautiful boy, Tadzio. Cunningham is more than merely well-read and his use of literature, film, music, art and movies to color his character’s words and thoughts is impressive, to say the least. This time we are treated to Shakespeare, Styx, Bette Davis, Tolstoy, Seurat, Beethoven, Damien Hirst, Rodin, Joyce and Mann.
Cunningham’s writing is intelligent and elegant. Dialogue is pitch perfect, and his use of idiom to fine tune his characters is almost delicious. He opens his character’s mind to us through an ongoing inner monologue that reveals the simmering angst and uncertainty, the fear that life has reached its apogee.
As indicated in the title, By Nightfall is something of a dark novel. Not everyone will enjoy the gravity of this protagonist’s dilemma, but let us remind ourselves that Michael Cunningham does not often do light and airy. There is plenty to laugh or chuckle over in this new novel, but you won’t find Gidget.