Monday, October 11, 2010

By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham

BEST OF 2010

It is possible, had Zadie Smith not named her 2005 novel On Beauty, then Michael Cunningham's newest novel would have been better suited to use the title. By Nightfall suggests something a little more sinister, a little darker, a little bit vampire. None of these is the case. The novel, By Nightfall, refers to Peter's insomnia. The use of this time as a way to ruminate on regrets of the past and unhappiness with the present. This is not a novel in celebration of life as Cunningham celebrated life in The Hours. By Nightfall is the darker sibling.

Much of the novel is obsessed with beauty. Peter is an art dealer. A second tier art dealer wanting to make it to the top. He thinks. Peter isn't quite sure what he wants. Does he want his wife? Does he want his assistant? Does he want his daughter to love him? What does he want from his wife's brother? Peter is at a loss. The sleepless nights haunt him in the same way he haunts his apartment after the rest of the household has fallen asleep.

Cunningham fills his novel with a plethora of references. One will find James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Pieter Bruegel, F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc. This is a literature of the high brow fashion. Cunningham isn't the snotty one. Peter is the one surrounding himself with these literary and art masterpieces. Peter's search for perfection. Peter's need for beauty.

Cunningham has written a novel on beauty. The obsessive power and control of something beautiful. Peter's entire career is in search of beauty. The one masterpiece for which he will become famous and world renowned. He seeks to discover beauty. What Peter hasn't fully understood is that beauty is fleeting. Once one grabs hold of beauty, something more beautiful is suddenly in sight. This is a slow realization for Peter. And, Cunningham never fully realizes this for Peter. Or, if Cunningham does, he doesn't reveal this to the reader.

I find most of this novel to be perfection. Sentences of pure delight. Descriptions of New York City placing me on the streets. Entire chapters so spot on in their dissection of humanity that I wanted to cry. This is Cunningham's second masterpiece (after The Hours). At play within this novel, many of the themes from Cunningham's past- the gay character, the literary themes, the beach house, etc. I will always wonder what took place in Cunningham's past. So many of his novels contain a scene of one gay male, one sexual female, and one sexually ambiguous male. There is something so significant in this set up for Cunningham.

There is a quote (which I don't remember too well) that says a great book will you make you want to stop reading it and start writing. This is one of those novels. After the flawed and disappointing Specimen Days, Cunningham has returned with a powerful and revealing novel of a man dissecting his life.


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