Tuesday, November 16, 2010

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

"Insomniacs know better than anyone how it would be to haunt a house."
Michael Cunningham is somebody I have easily considered one of my favourite authors for the last few years- I've actually read every single novel he's written, so of course I was extremely excited to pick up number five, his latest book, By Nightfall. Cunningham's previous books include Specimen Days, A Home at the End of the World, and the Pulitzer prize winning The Hours. Which such high expectations going into By Nightfall, I could have easily been let down as I was recently with Nicole Krauss' Great House, but instead I fell in love.

By Nightfall is the story of Peter and Rebecca Harris, a couple who have been married for about twenty years and now are in their mid-forties sharing a loft in SoHo while their college-drop out daughter lives in Boston. Rebecca and Peter share a love for the arts- she edits a magazine while he is a dealer, and their life is quintessentially New York including brunches at fancy restaurants and parties with people they don't really care about. Their calm existence is challenged however when Rebecca's much younger brother, Ethan (or Mizzy "the mistakes") a former drug addict arrives following trip to Japan. Staying with the Harris' while he looks for direction about what he wants to do with his life, Rebecca can't help but worry Mizzy will relapse, while Peter is forced to recall memories of his own brother who died around Mizzy's age. Mizzy causes Peter to question everything he has spent decades building, including his marriage and his career, as well as the very meaning of art.
Isn't this part of what you keep looking for in art-rescue from solitude and subjectivity; the sense of company in history and the greater world; the human mystery simultaneously illuminated and deepened?
By Nightfall definitely has some signature Cunningham characters: men either struggling with their sexuality, lacking a definite sexual orientation, or as appears in every one of his books, a gay man who is dying or has died of AIDs. Despite these familiar personality traits, Cunningham manages unique and beautiful feelings in each of his novels so that even if there are similarities the overall sensation is something new. What is different about By Nightfall is that all of Cunningham's other novels are told through shifting perspectives from one character to the other, while By Nightfall is told in the third person although it follows Peter's viewpoint alone. Because of the switch to a focus on one single narrative, By Nightfall feels particularly personal even without comparison to Cunningham's other books.

The novel itself is full of references, both to artwork and other literature, in a way that fits seamlessly into the New York art world landscape. However it doesn't require a strong background in art history to enjoy the details, I certainly don't have one, as the reader is still able to picture the work of the various artists Peter represents through the vivid description by Cunningham. Although By Nightfall could be easily appreciated for the artistic and literary symbolism, it was actually not what I felt was strongest about the book. What I loved most was the depth and complexity of Peter's mind, the conflicting desires and the role history played in shaping who he is and how he sees other. I could sympathize with Peter's desperate desire to be there for his unwilling daughter. I felt the envy of being overshadowed by a sibling, and the pain of loosing one. There were also philosophical implications tied into Peter's thoughts, questions about the meaning of art, life and relationship. Each emotion is carefully crafted by Cunningham providing By Nightfall with its most impressive accomplishment- both a universal and deeply personal story. *****

Number of Pages: 256 pages
Published: September 2010
Source: Public Library

1 comment:

  1. I picked this one up at BEA, but I still haven't read it. I hope to find time for it soon!


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