I’ll start off this post by telling you that, when I finished By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham, I was actually crying–like, reach for the tissue box crying. The last book that made me cry like that was A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (and yes, I sniffled a couple times during Freedom). Ms. Moore and Mr. Franzen were writing about death when they moved me to tears. Michael Cunningham was writing about marriage.
Peter, the narrator of By Nightfall, is a forty-four year old gallerist. He’s married to Rebecca, who helms a struggling art magazine and they live, comfortably, in a SoHo loft. (By the way, no one is more aware of the cliche of comfortable, SoHo art world denizens than is Peter, who constantly frets over his conspicuous bourgie-ness; on a nocturnal walk that takes him near the LES, a brunch on the UES or a ride on the L to Bushwick, he is obsessed with how those around him will read and judge the cultural signifiers of his appearance). As art is a focal point in Peter and Rebecca’s lives, it is in the novel. The plot of the book–which is highly intellectual, emotional, 99% in Peter’s head–often hinges on moments spent in front of artwork both real (a Rodin, the Damien Hirst shark) and invented (a classically inspired urn inscribed with obscenities, heroic action figures based on everyday people, wrapped canvases bearing secret paintings). Literature, particularly Thomas Mann, also factors prominently in the book, but in a less seamless role. When Peter finds himself undone by–perhaps in love with?–Rebecca’s much younger brother, twenty-three year old sometimes drug-addicted, always fucked up, always magically beautifully tragically alluring Ethan–referred to as Mizzy, the Mistake–no reader is going to have an ah-ha moment at a Death in Venice reference. Nothing subtle about that. But–that it’s Mizzy, Tadzio himself, who is hauling around a copy of the book–well, that move gave me pause.
Throughout the novel, Peter meditates on three members of his family, all of whom he connects, in some way, to his troubled house guest. He constantly compares Rebecca to her younger self, both the real version and young Rebecca incarnate–Mizzy. When Mizzy first arrives, Peter actually walks in on him in the shower, thinking he is Rebecca, and lingers, looking, obsessing about the youth and beauty that have been lost to his wife. Peter and Rebecca’s somewhat-estranged daughter, Bea, is only a few years younger than Mizzy; even when she deigns to speak to Peter, he can’t relate to her. And, strangely, somewhat incestuously, Mizzy causes Peter to think of his brother, who was charming, gay and died of AIDS. Peter is aware that he is conflating people, often unfairly, but he can’t stop.
The narrative voice in By Nightfall is driven by self-awareness. The reader is entirely in Peter’s head; every detail of every event is mediated by his memory, his self-consciousness, his motivations and emotions. It is low-action, high-contemplation, but that is what makes it so dramatic. The reader is so close to Peter that when he is surprised, so is the reader, when he is devastated, ugh–at least this reader was destroyed.
I have a few issues with the book. Before I settled into it, it seemed a little too writerly for me, which is a critique I gave myself over to and got past quickly enough. But, much is made of this being a mid-life crisis sort of situation for this marriage and yet the characters are 41 and 44. Is that really mid-life? I mean, technically, I guess so but in New York City, I feel like that is pretty young. I found myself subbing in different ages in my head to make it all fit better for me–if I gave them both five or six years, I believed it all just that much more. Small quibbles though, considering Mr. Cunningham wrote with complete believability and in spot-on detail about visiting a hipster artist’s studio in Bushwick, a chapter that could have been really embarrassing done wrong.
There is a certain twisting of the plot at the end of By Nightfall and, as always, I won’t give it away. Given a lesser writer’s treatment, it could have been trite or boring, its misery could have even seemed deserved, but Michael Cunningham writes with such honesty and sympathy towards his characters that, rather than these small personal tragedies feeling mundane, they felt specific, important.
By Nightfall is about the intangible–art, beauty, longing–and the tangible, the ordinary people who will always fall short. But Michael Cunningham turns even them into art.