Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

By Nightfall
by Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
238 pages

"It's your life, quite possibly your only one. Still you find yourself having a vodka at three a.m., waiting for your pill to kick in, with time ticking through you and your own ghost already wandering among your rooms." (pg. 21)

See that, there? Nobody writes like Michael Cunningham.  Nobody.  Which is what makes Michael Cunningham one of my favorite authors. (I loved The Hours, couldn't finish Specimen Days, and am breathless after By Nightfall which is going to linger with me for a long, long time.)

Let's get the fangirl shenanigans out of the way first and then I'll try to put some semblance of coherant thought into this review. This book?  Is freaking amazing, people.  Yeah, I'm going to be heaping praise of the most effusive kind on this one, which has earned a place on my best books of the year list.  It is SO. DAMN. GOOD.  (I was having a Facebook conversation of sorts with Cathy Marie Buchanan, author of The Day the Falls Stood Still and no slacker herself in the writing department, mind you - where we said that Cunningham makes this writing thing look so damn easy and the rest of us shouldn't even bother trying.)

Honestly, I don't even know where to start with this.  First, there's the gorgeously flowing writing. Had this been my own copy, it would have been underlined up the wazoo because there are simply passages of beauty throughout this novel.  And By Nightfall is, in fact, a novel about internal and external beauty and what happens to us when we feel that the beauty has gone out of our lives.

Peter Harris knows a little something about beauty. He's a 44 year old art dealer in New York City with a respectable client list and a slight case of insomnia, living in SoHo with his 41 year old wife Rebecca.  Like many professional couples who have been married and have been parents for a number of years (21 of them), theirs has become a marriage (a life) of complacency, of routine and familiarity, of going through the everyday motions of jobs, of sex, of social obligations.

"He feels, as he sometimes does, as most people must, a presence in the room, what he can only think of as his and Rebecca's living ghosts, the amalgamation of their dreams and their breathing, their smells. He does not believe in ghosts, but he believes in ... something. Something viable, something living, that's surprised when he wakes at this hour, that's neither glad nor sorry to see him awake but that recognizes the fact, because it has been interrupted in its nocturnal, inchoate musings." (pg. 122-123)

As the novel opens, Peter and Rebecca are anticipating a visit from Rebecca's much younger brother Ethan (known as Mizzy, because at 23 he is affectionately referred to as "the Mistake"). He's had some issues with drugs and is somewhat flighty, but there's something endearing about him.  He resembles a younger Rebecca in some ways - and for Peter, who obviously senses that his best days are behind him (or perhaps numbered), Mizzy represents a youthfulness (and yes, a beauty) that he no longer has, if it was even his to begin with.  He also serves as a poignant reminder to Peter of his brother Matthew, who died in his early 20s from what we understand to be AIDS but isn't mentioned by name in the novel. 

This sounds all very superficial - and By Nightfall is nowhere near that. Trust me on this. There is so much packed into these 238 pages, and I am not doing justice to the plot, which takes place only over a few days. It is a plot that turns on a dime by shocking the reader with just five words toward the end of the novel. (The last 40 pages of this one had me on the edge of my seat.)

Through these exceptional characters (particularly Peter), By Nightfall is much more of a in-depth look at who we are as a person, and how we relate to each other, and the questions we ask ourselves in the middle of the night as we sense our life becoming not what we anticipated. The symbolism - my God, there's so much - and everything means something.  I love when a book is chock full of symbolism, and this doesn't disappoint in that regard. 

For example, one of Peter's wealthy clients isn't happy with a recent piece she purchased and Peter arranges for a replacement, which she loves - an urn adorned with "hieroglyphic" phrases, some foul and nasty (we can only speculate what they are for Cunningham doesn't say and ... well, he doesn't have to). The urn represents the unexpected - you wouldn't expect to see such a thing in a proper English garden - and also the theme that beauty is fleeting, that everything dies.  Another of Peter's artists has an upcoming show in his gallery which features five regular people going about their everyday lives, one on the streets of Philadelphia. (A reference to the movie, I wondered?) 

The setting and timeframe of the novel - post 9/11 New York City - is incredibly well done, as Cunningham lets his reader into the still present sense of mortality that lingers nearly a decade after the terrorist attacks.  I'm not a New Yorker, but Cunningham is and he captures the effect that this changed place has on its people.

"'s almost impossible to maintain a sense of hubris when you live here, you're too constantly confronted by the rampant otherness of others; hubris is surely much more attainable when you've got a house and lawn and an Audi, when you understand that at the end of the world you'll get a second's more existence because the bomb won't be aimed at you, the shock wave will take you out but you're not anybody's main target, you've removed yourself from the kill zone, no one gets shot where you live, no one get stabbed by a random psychopath, the biggest threat to your personal, ongoing security is the possibility that the neighbor's son will break in and steal a few prescription bottles from your medicine cabinet.' (pg. 131)

See what I mean with that writing there?

And then there's this:

"Maybe its not, in the end, the virtues of others that so wrenches our hearts as it is the sense of almost unbearably poignant recognition when we see them at their most base, in their sorrow and gluttony and foolishness.  You need the virtues, too - some sort of virtues - but we don't care about Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina or Raskolnikov because they're good.  We care about them because they're not admirable, because they're us, and because great writers have forgiven them for it." (pg. 119).

Peter Harris is us, because we have all been fools for love at one point in our lives, haven't we? We've all been in a relationship where someone gives us a reason for living, who makes us feel new and alive again when our souls have been dead or dying, who we would give up everything we have just to be with them. Michael Cunningham knows that feeling, captures it in this novel, and delivers it to his reader with extraordinary passion.

What Other Bloggers Thought:

My Porch  - Thomas nails the essence of this novel with this: "So much of art, whatever the media, is filled with ideas and ideals that make no sense in real life. People don't really die of broken hearts, but look at how much music would have you think so. People don't often sacrifice their whole lives for another person or a high minded ideal, but just think of how many novels or poems would have you think so. And how many of us in our day-to-day lives feel the elation or the despair that so many painters capture on canvas? Not many of us could really say that these kinds of artistic fictions are the basis for our lives, but I think most of us can point to when they were true for a minute, for an hour, for a month, at least in our heads. And so it goes with Peter. All of the tragedy and joy of art is about to explode in his real life. He himself wonders if it can really be that way."

Sorry Television (could there be any better name for a book blog?!) has some of the best quotes from By Nightfall in this post.  A full review is here.

Lit License
Beth Fish Reads
A Guy's Moleskine Notebook
Ready When You Are, C.B.
Bibliophile by the Sea

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Teresa said...

I wanted to read this before reading your review. Now I REALLY, REALLY, REALLY want to read it!

Thomas at My Porch said...

I had the same problem with Speciman Days. But then I picked it up again and finished it in one sitting. And since you like Cunningham, you really should try it again.

K A B L O O E Y said...

I think you just rounded out my vacation reading list. Gonna hit the kindle...

JoAnn said...

With quotes like that, it doesn't matter whether you've done justice to the plot - it still sounds positively amazing! I fell in love with Michael Cunningham's writing in The Hours and went on to read A Home at the End of the World (you should read it if you haven't already). This sounds like a must read for me!!

Anonymous said...

Wow. I've not read Cunningham yet, but you can be sure I am going to be looking for this one. And soon!

Kira Bindrim said...

I'm a little late, but better late than never. Thanks for the shoutout!
(i.e. SorryTelevision)