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.