Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall
Harper Collins, 2010

I read Michael Cunningham’s first novel, A Home at the End of the World last month, and wholly enjoyed it. Nearly as much as The Hours, but the bookishness of the latter (or, perhaps I should say, the Woolfishness) left it in the lead for my favourite Michael Cunningham book. It’s still secure in its positioning now that I’ve read By Nightfall.

One of the things that I most enjoyed about his other novels is the way they were brimming with interconnections (if you’ve read The Hours, you know exactly what I mean). And not only that, but the multiple narrative perspectives. Both of these elements contributed to the sense that the story was complex, vibrant and layered.

In contrast: By Nightfall, the story of Peter Harris, one man grappling with the search for meaning in New York City.

Here he is:
“He stands at the railing, with the black ocean hurling itself at his feet and the little Christmas lights of Staten Island strung along the horizon as if they’d been placed there to delineate the boundary between dark opague ocean and dark starless sky.”

You can see it, can’t you? A quintessential New York scene. And the novel does throb with the pulse of the city. From the talk of traffic: “Another cab, back downtown, Peter thinks sometimes that at the end, whenever it comes, he will remember riding in cabs as vividly as he recalls anything else from his earthly career.  …that sense of enclosed flotation; of moving unassaulted through the streets of this improbably city.” To exploring neighbourhoods by foot. To social observations, like this one: “You can’t be sick in public, not in New York. It renders you impoverished, no matter how well you’re dressed.”

The city is a vital part of the story, embodying the dichotomies that occupy Peter (the consumption/excess and the depletion/waste; the social opportunities and isolation; the capacity to thrive and the quiet decay; the constant activity and the nagging emptiness).

But that image of Peter at the railing is revealing in another way, in the indecipherable boundary between the dark water and the starless sky. Without those strung lights, Peter cannot spot the line: it’s darkness everywhere he looks.

Throughout the narrative, there are a number of other fine lines that he strains to see.

He wants to be comfortable in a long-term marriage without crossing into sameness or boredom. He wants to ask questions about his daughter’s life without being nosy or overbearing. As an agent representing artists, he needs to look like he’s doing well, without looking like he’s extravagant with the commissions he earns through their successes.

Who is the kisser and who is being kissed? Where is the line between finding someone of the same sex attractive and identifying as a gay man? Is there a difference between being passionate and being sexual? Where is the line between loving art and exploiting it for a living? What makes one choose between abandoning something and working harder for it? To pull from the Rilke epigraph, at what point does beauty shift to being the beginning of terror?

So although there is a lot of what one would expect in a novel about well-off New Yorkers (talking to all the right people in fancy dress, gallery chatter about who matters, talk of lunch reservations, and all that), there is also a lot of interior drama. In fact the bulk of By Nightfall takes place in Peter’s brain, in conversations that he is having with himself.

But it’s also a conversation that Michael Cunningham is having with his readers. Throughout the novel, he offers glimpses of other loves, other bookish affairs. Sometimes he alludes openly to works like Madame Bovary, Death in Venice, and The Magic Mountain, and to authors like James, Fitzgerald, and Tolstoy. Sometimes he offers like glimpses, like “Yes, reader, she married him”, and snow falling outside a window as a character has an epiphany, waving to Charlotte Bronte and James Joyce and their adherents. They are subtle undertones that will reward the bookish reader.

These allusions are carefully chosen and I doubly appreciated the crafting with such details as I’d been expecting more multi-dimensional storytelling (those additional narrators, the interconnections between narrative threads). However, that wouldn’t have suited Peter’s tale.

It is really the story of a single man, best told in a single man’s voice. I think I would have appreciated that more if By Nightfall hadn’t been the third in a string of novels that grappled with the same theme: what do we do with our freedom? And yet, the novel complements Jonathan Franzen’s and David Bergen’s in a rather interesting way.

Isn’t it curious how much the timing of a reading can influence your response?

Companion Reads:
Julia Glass’ The Whole World Over (2006)
Paul Auster’s Leviathan (1993) (If I’m remembering the right one)
Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (2007)
Something by Stephen McCauley (but I couldn’t say which, can you?)

This post coincides with an IFOA event with Michael Cunningham this evening. This is just one of several events this evening: please see the IFOA site for details and ticket information.