Having won a Pulitzer Prize (for The Hours) and having had two of his novels turned into creditable movies (The Hours, A Home at the End of the World), Michael Cunningham is not a novelist working in obscurity. He has a track record for his ability to juggle multiple plotlines, most famously the women in three different times (tied together by Mrs. Dalloway, a novel one of the three wrote and that the other two greatly appreciate). Cunningham also created a novel from stories at three different times in Specimen Days, an experiment that mostly worked for me.
The one of his novels that left me mostly cold was his more conventional sprawling family novel misnamed Flesh and Blood. Cunningham’s new novel, By Nightfall, seems to me a bit padded, but is not close to being as sprawling as Flesh and Blood… and more embodied. By Nightfall is the intersection of two family stories.
The protagonist, Peter Harris, an art gallery owner in his mid-40s, originally from Milwaukee had very conventional straitlaced Midwestern parents and a very exotic (rara avis) older brother who died of AIDS a quarter of a century ago. Peter’s wife Rebecca is the youngest of three Taylor sisters who grew up in a somewhat crumbling Richmond mansion with parents not much interested in domesticity. Rebecca has a brother 17 years her junior, who she and her sisters call “Mizzy,” short for “mistake.” Ethan (the name that Peter tries to use) must have had a strong urge to be born according to family legend, overcoming tied tubes.
His will to live is not as strong. He has not lived up to his early promise, and has been through drug rehab at least twice. He has come to stay with Rebecca and Peter. Peter inadvertently discovers that Ethan is using crystal. He knows that, if he tells his wife, she and her sisters will force Mizzy into rehab.
Seeing something of the Rebecca he fell in love with in her much younger brother, Peter keeps silent and develops fantasies about trading in Rebecca for Ethan. Like Tadzio in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, it is not clear how conscious Ethan is of Peter’s interest (which is erotic, yes, but as much longing for youth and beauty as desire for the particular incarnation; also Ethan is at least twice Tadzio’s age… and carrying around and possible reading Mann’s Magic Mountain).
It seems to me that Peter thinks a lot in terms of canonical literature, rather less of visual art than one might expect from his line of work. He does twice think of Manet’s naked mistress in “Olympia” in relation to his gaze at the naked (and similarly pert) love object, however.
The business of art and the subsidiary characters involved with it (artists, Peter’s assistant Uta who is a sort of second Rebecca, a gallery owner with cancer who is quitting the business, and a rich Greenwich, CT customer dissatisfied with one purchase and wanting a replacement) seem plausible to me. (I know artists with gallery connections, but don’t have much direct observation of the gallery owners.)
Rebecca edits a magazine. One would think that an author, most any author, would know more about the publishing business than about the art business, but Rebecca’s work life is little more than mentioned.
And I have not mentioned their daughter, Bea, who holds grudges against both parents and in their view has chosen to be a nobody (tending bar in a hotel in Boston; whether she is a lesbian is uncertain). Peter is guilt-ridden about not being sufficiently supportive of a daughter whose looks, tastes, and lack of ambition have disappointed him. (Again, Rebecca’s views are unclear to the reader, but, perhaps rashly, I assimilate her to the lesbian daughter in the contemporary story in The Hours,)
There is plot, indeed, plots, including flashbacks, and an interesting cast of characters. The novel seems to me more mood-driven than character-driven or plot-driven. The mood is melancholy, as in The Hours and A Home at the End of the World. As in both of them there is some AIDS-loss melancholy, but the primary melancholics here are male: Peter and Ethan.
Peter is having an “Is that all there is? Will I never find genius or ecstasy?” midlife melancholy. Ethan is facing a lack of any sense of vocation (or other kind of commitment). Much has always been expected of him by his sisters and parents… and himself. At the age of 23, having just returned from meditating daily for weeks at a Japanese temple, Ethan is having the growing up crisis of realizing that his gifts are not so extraordinary and are unfocused:. “Who isn’t ordinary?” has knows is the reasonable realization. “How horribly presumptuous to want to be something else. But I have to tell you. I’ve been treated as something special for so long, and I’ve tried my hardest to be something special, but I’ not. I’m not exceptional. I’m smart enough, but I’m not brilliant, and I’m not spiritual or all that focused…. I don’t want to do nothing. But I seem not to have some faculty other people have. Something that tells me to do this or that. To go to medical school or join the Peace Corps or teach English as a second language. Everything seems perfectly plausible to me. And I can’t quite see myself doing any of it.”
Ethan and Peter (et al.) are far-from-perfect but sympathetic. The novel has an ending that surprised me but that I found plausible and satisfying. I had a lot more trouble getting into the book with a contrived metaphor of an accident and a sex scene I did not believe in. Indeed, Peter as a husband never convinced me. (He convinced me as a guilty father, as a dissatisfied quester after artistic genius and/or beauty, as the heterosexual 13-year-old he remembers, as a married man smitten by a younger mane, but not as the 44-year-old heterosexual man.)
And the milieu of midlife crises among the cultural elite (magazine editors, taste-making gallery owners) is one in which my never-great interest was largely exhausted by Woody Allen movies from the “Hannah and Her Sisters” era, though the bored-with-his-marriage middle-aged man here fantasizes about the much younger brother of his wife rather than the somewhat younger sister of his wife.
There also too many designer allusions (and, indeed, literary ones) for my taste, too many adjectives, too many descriptions of places and clothes and taxi drivers and taxi interiors. IMHO, “He’s available to the forces of mortality” is overwriting as is “moving unassaulted through the streets of this improbable city” (I like the “unassaulted,” but not the trite “improbable,” at least so soon after the polysyllabic but striking “unassaulted”) or a “tarrily heavy” tarp (IMHO a forced alliteration). Cunningham also hits on many an apt phrase (I like “aroused at the memory of having been young” and many of Ethan’s lines) and articulate dialog (including what Peter thinks and does not say in interactions with others). I believe that Cunningham or his editor should have pruned 30-50 pages of the text. It seems like a New Yorker story (albeit with a more satisfying ending than many stories from the New Yorker) exploring psychic territory (longings and guilts of middle-aged men) of John Cheever (who is mentioned on the train ride to Greenwich).