Sunday, November 7, 2010

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

Late in By Nightfall, gallery owner Peter Harris and his brother-in-law Mizzy (short for "The Mistake," because he came along nearly 20 years after his three sisters) enter a client's home, described as "a perfect imitation of itself." Peter, the protagonist of Cunningham's new novel, might be similarly labeled. Peter appears to be a happy 44-year-old with an art gallery, a loft in Soho that is a "great space" bought before real estate prices skyrocketed, an accomplished wife Rebecca, a problem daughter, and a large social circle. But unhappiness is Peter's "realm," and the happy facade is just that...a facade.

Peter wants to be deeply moved by the art he sells, but representing artists who produce foul-smelling installations made of glue and horsehair or paintings displayed in brown wrapping paper is not rewarding. Thus, perhaps we should not be surprised when Peter feels himself drawn to Mizzy. Mizzy is an aimless twenty-something with a drug habit, but he also has a "pale, princely beauty." How Peter decides to handle his feelings is somewhat startling, however.

Most of the book takes place in Peter's head--with forays into his childhood in Milwaukee, his brother's death of AIDS in the 1980s, the first time he met Rebecca's family, and other seminal events. In the present, the book takes place over just a few days while Mizzy is staying with the couple. As readers, we come to know Peter well--and, although it's hard to actually like him, I could empathize with his angst about his career, his marriage, his role as a father. Rebecca and Mizzy we know less well, of course, and yet the "surprises" that they spring on Peter at the end of the book seem not exactly predictable, but logical within the way their relationships with Peter are depicted.

As with all Cunningham's novels, there are many literary references--Gatsby and Death in Venice prominent among them--but they are not as central to the book as Mrs. Dalloway was to The Hours or Whitman's work was to Specimen Days. Here visual arts assume a central role; fortunately, you do not need sophisticated knowledge of modern art to understand Peter's ruminations on beauty, creativity, and significance. While the construction of the novel is perhaps not as complex as either of those earlier Cunningham works, the writing is just as beautiful. As a character study and an examination of how a person might be affected by the lack of beauty in his/her life, By Nightfall is successful.

Favorite passages:

Peter has gotten better over the years at dressing as the man who's impersonating the man he actually is. Still, there are days when he can't shake the feeling that he's gotten it wrong. And of course it's grotesque to care about how you look, yet almost impossible not to.

Here is the terrible, cleansing fire. Peter has been too long in mourning, for the people who've disappeared, for the sense of dangerous inspiration his life refuses to provide.

They do, of course, each of them, carry within them a jewel of self, not just the wounds and the hopes but an innerness, what Beethoven might have called the soul, that self-ember we carry, the simple fact of aliveness, all snarled up with dream and memory but other than dream and memory, other than the moment (crossing a street, leaving a bakery); that minor infinitude, the private universe in which you have always been and will always be buzzing along on a skate board or looking or coins in the bottom of your purse or going home with your fussing children. What did Shakespeare say? Our little lives are rounded with a sleep.

No comments:

Post a Comment