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Book Review: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

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Michael Cunningham has a unique approach to writing novels. He selects a classic work of literature and constructs a contemporary homage to it. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours mirrored the stream-of-consciousness technique used by Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway, while describing a day in the life of three different women, living at different times, who were affected by that novel. His follow-up, Specimen Days, examines the themes in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass through three stories set in different times and written in the styles of three different genres.

Cunningham’s latest novel, By Nightfall, is also an homage, this time to the Thomas Mann novella, Death in Venice. However, it is much more straightforward in structure than either The Hours or Specimen Days, which makes it a less challenging — and perhaps less rewarding — book to read. But it is a fast and pleasurable read, primarily due to Cunningham’s ability to craft detailed scenes. Cunningham writes so well that it isn’t necessary to read the original works that his books reference; everything you need to know is contained within Cunningham’s prose.

By Nightfall describes a few days in the life of Peter Harris, the well-off owner of an art gallery in New York City who is going through a midlife crisis. Peter suspects that life holds no more surprises for him, a realization that depresses him. In the opening scene, Peter is riding in a cab to a party with his wife, and he already knows exactly how the party will go, how many drinks they will have, and who will hit on his wife before they leave. This telling scene illustrates what is vaguely bothering him. Peter’s marriage to Rebecca seems solidly but predictable. His work should be fulfilling but doesn’t quite satisfy him, for reasons he can’t define. His relationship with his daughter is strained, and again Peter can’t figure out why. He suffers from insomnia and prowls his quiet apartment late at night, drinking vodka and looking out the window.

Then Rebecca’s much younger brother arrives to stay for an undetermined period. Mizzy (short for “Mistake”) struggles with drug addiction and an inability to live up to the specialness his family attributes to him. Mizzy is beautiful, intelligent, and entirely without direction. Peter, comparing him to a Rodin bronze, finds himself attracted to Mizzy as he would be to an exquisite art piece. In fact, Mizzy may be the perfect work of art that Peter has always sought but never acquired. Mizzy becomes the unfortunate focus of Peter’s vague fantasies for a quick fix to whatever is wrong with is life. With Mizzy, certainly the unexpected would happen, and it would quite likely be disastrous. Peter seems willing to risk it. Fortunately, Cunningham doesn’t take the story in the direction that the reader expects.

The story is told from Peter’s point of view. The reader lives in Peter’s head and is privy to all of Peter’s thoughts, feelings, and misapprehensions. While this technique makes Peter seem very real, it doesn’t make him all that sympathetic, or even likable. We readers want Peter to stop being so vague and take some decisive action — although not the destructive actions he contemplates. The challenge is to stick with Peter through to the end. There is a twist, a good one, and a chance for Peter to redeem himself.

By Nightfall may disappoint those readers who have come to know Michael Cunningham through his stronger, more complex novels. But for readers who are unfamiliar with Cunningham’s work, By Nightfall serves as a good introduction.

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