[spoiler alert] In this sparse, elegantly drawn graphic novel, Adrian Tomine explores the psyche of Ben Tanaka, a 30-year-old Berkeley resident in a m[spoiler alert] In this sparse, elegantly drawn graphic novel, Adrian Tomine explores the psyche of Ben Tanaka, a 30-year-old Berkeley resident in a moody war with his identity. Having quit grad school, he manages a run-down movie theater, devoted to the ideals of "real" art it supposedly represents. But his deeper struggle is with racial identity--his own and that of others around him. An Oregon-born Japanese American, he has a longtime Japanese American girlfriend, Miko; yet he is obsessed with blond-haired, blue-eyed "white girls," as Miko acidly observes. Tomine, well-known for his pastel-colored New Yorker covers depicting life and ennui among urban twenty- and thirtysomethings, shows himself more than capable of a sustained narrative, bringing an astonishing range of subtle tones from sheer black and white artwork.
Miko presents Ben with more challenge than just a frustrated, neglected partner; she is delving deeper into her own cultural identity, helping to run an Asian American film festival (which Ben disdains as a case of affirmative action rewarding cheesy, half-baked art). When Miko accepts an internship in New York at an Asian American film organization, it offers both Ben and Miko the chance to explore the logical conclusions of ideals left unsatisfied by their deteriorating relationship. Armed with the good-natured, foul-mouthed advice of his friend Alice (Korean, lesbian, a Ph.D. candidate and female Lothario at Mills College who is still trying to pretend to her traditional parents that she is straight), Ben is finally free to compare his fantasy of "white girls" with the reality of an actual girlfriend. Naturally, there is a discrepancy, as the girlfriend's lesbian leanings, Ben's terminally cranky mood, and his continuing fixation with race cloud the romantic sunshine. Things go from bad to worse for Ben when Alice, like Miko, opts to depart for New York, and finds that Miko's life there has taken a few surprising turns that force Ben into open battle with his prejudices.
Tomine's storytelling is silent where it needs to be, and piercingly detailed where it needs to be. In black and white, Tomine presents racial categories as stark prejudices and also ever more slippery constructs in the minds of its characters, who constantly strain against the mold of typical. Every character is drawn indelibly and subtly, from the main characters to the incidental ones (the dykes at a Mills party Alice drags Ben to are priceless). Likewise, the settings are pitch-perfect: Tomine suggests all of the east bay with a single rectilinear, 1960s-style window and a flyer-encrusted streetlight pole, and all of Soho with a pair of retro chairs in a brick-walled cafe. Tomine's details, flawlessly drawn, become as fixation-worthy as any of Ben's, Miko's, or Alice's fetishes. This 100+ page volume has enough humor, insight, and subtlety to be savored, but you won't be able to, because the tragicomedy and gorgeous artwork will become an obsession you won't be able to put down, nor dismiss in any simplistic way once you've finished....more
"It was a solo experience even when there were two of you," observes the narrator of the title story in Jeanette Winterson's collection, "The World and"It was a solo experience even when there were two of you," observes the narrator of the title story in Jeanette Winterson's collection, "The World and Other Places." The narrator is a lifelong model-plane builder who eventually joins the Air Force, and the "solo experience" he describes is a training flight when he realizes that pursuing the frontiers of his fantasies isolates him from other people. It's a discovery made by many characters in the collection's 17 stories: the lonely department-store clerk whose wish for blond hair is granted by a fairy ("O'Brien's First Christmas"), the village "screwball" who reads the underside of leaves ("Newton"), a professional dreamer in a society that has banned sleeping ("Disappearance I"). There is plenty of humor in the landscape of the "other places" Winterson evokes as alternatives to the world we know (for example, the young Bible scholar in "Psalms" is transfixed by the vision of a demonic rabbit named Ezra). If Winterson's fantastical brushstrokes trace the arc of a wry, raised eyebrow, then her characters trace the arc of a shut eyelid, sealed and dreaming. They are vulnerable to the world without being fully part of it; they are keenly exposed to the reader while ensconced in the illusion of solitude.
There are three clear standouts in "The World and Other Places”: "The Poetics of Sex," "The Green Man," and "A Green Square." In these stories Winterson uses plain emotions as the bridge between her characters' worldly surroundings and the strange terrain of their minds. In "A Green Square," a suburban father's despair about his undifferentiated days is our passage to understanding the single memory that holds meaning for him: a boat in clear water in which he rode as a child on "the day when I had been happy." It's the contrast between the father's reality (stopped-up sewer pipes) and his fantasy--"a diving lake I never dived in because I could never get there through the mind's accumulations"--that wraps him in disaffection while coaxing empathy from the reader. The contrast, and therefore the empathy, is missing from stories like "Turn of the World," in which allegorical islands are described in the emotionless language of a tour guide: "Deeper into the island, where the cable cars stop and where the nimble ponies are left far behind, the only way for anyone to travel is by story. Some stories go farther than others." In this collection, the stories that go furthest are the ones in which the islands we explore are the archipelago of imagination in a worldly consciousness. The stories that go furthest are the ones in which the solo flight of fantasy nevertheless invites the reader to travel along in empathy. ...more
"What could happen between the professionally calm and the long-term dead?" Behind this incantation from the recent prize-winning Scottish novel So I "What could happen between the professionally calm and the long-term dead?" Behind this incantation from the recent prize-winning Scottish novel So I Am Glad, one can almost hear the chuckle of its mad-scientist author, A.L. Kennedy. Her story--a romance set in contemporary Glasgow--is at once inopportune and darkly funny. Its overall success depends upon the reader's willingness to humor a bizarre plot device: Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac--the seventeenth-century philosopher, not the familiar large-nosed character from the play--wakes up one day in a house shared by three Scottish gen Xers. There he falls in love with Jennifer: a radio announcer, S&M aficionada, and "calm person" for whom language is as empty of emotion as she is. (Unlike most people, who have "whole hordes of feelings, all barrelling round inside them like tireless moles," Jennifer confesses she has "a certain moley something missing.") Like the non sequiturs that punctuate their dialogue in the early chapters, Kennedy's two lovers initially seem like unrelated concepts; she connects them through the language of courtship, until, as Savinien tells Jennifer, their "lives [are] speaking directly, having set us aside."
Kennedy encodes her characters' neuroses directly into her prose, which is one of the most entertaining aspects of So I Am Glad. For example, Jennifer's description of sex--"like a mad traffic policeman tangoing through ink, like a killer whale fighting to open an envelope. [I]t really makes no sense to me"--makes her bewilderment, and the reader's, literal in overdetermined, nonsensical similes. Unfortunately, as Jennifer and Savinien become more intimate, Kennedy's verbal fireworks dissipate, fading out almost entirely by the end of the book. In spite of their intriguing quirks, the two main characters, when combined, produce a fizzle: safe, but somehow disappointing when one had been prepared for a small explosion. ...more
[spoiler alert] Sylvia Cassedy's "Behind the Attic Wall," which you would find in the children's books section directed to "older readers," has a numb[spoiler alert] Sylvia Cassedy's "Behind the Attic Wall," which you would find in the children's books section directed to "older readers," has a number of elements that will be familiar to devotees of classics like "Cindarella," "The Secret Garden," and "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." The heroine, an orphan named Maggie, comes to live with her two humorless aunts in an old mansion that used to be a school, now shrouded in mysterious tragedy. Yet though Maggie is a "charity case," she is far from the noble-poor type portrayed by the Brothers Grimm, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Roald Dahl. Maggie is dour toward adults, combative toward other children, and imaginative when alone. Her curiosity and willfulness leads her, like Mary Lennox and Lucy Pevensie, to discover magic hidden behind forbidden doors: in this case, two knee-high porcelain dolls animated by the spirits of the old school's founders, who, Maggie learns, were killed in a fire that forced the school's closure. Timothy John and Miss Christabel, as the two dolls introduce themselves, invite Maggie into their rituals: pretend "tea" served from an empty teapot, walks in the "garden" (an attic room covered with faded floral wallpaper), and conversation (Alice in Wonderland-like semi-nonsense). The dolls, who mysteriously refer to Maggie as "the right one," become unlikely friends for antisocial Maggie, who had insisted, from the outset, that she doesn't play with dolls ("'They're dumb'").
All of the above would make for a serviceable children's novel, with contours predictable enough to provide comfort in the guise of adventure. What makes "Behind the Attic Wall" a fresh departure from the familiar is its provocative, ultimately ambiguous blend of realism and fantasy. Cassedy's characterizations are completely unsentimental. Maggie--an Indian-burn-inflicting, sassing, stealing, hair-sucking antiheroine--is more raw than any Cindarella. The aunts, nutrition freaks appalled by Maggie's skinniness and listless hair, embark on a crusade to nourish her into their idea of a "wholesome child" (like the obnoxiously self-satisfied Jeanette, whom they invite over as an enforced friend for Maggie--here again, Cassedy won't let superficial goodness go uncritiqued). Yet despite the aunts' apparent concern, they are far from comforting, with their fiercely rouged cheeks and harsh critiques. Even Uncle Morris, whose semi-nonsensical wordplay (tellingly similar to that of the two dolls) incites Maggie's first stirrings of affection, is hardly a Prince Charming; he holds himself at a faux-serious, benevolent distance and never shows his hand.
As with her human characters, Cassedy presents her fantasy characters mostly without sentimentality. Maggie imagines a group of "backwoods girls," poorer than she, to whom she teaches concrete tasks: how indoor plumbing works, how to write on a blackboard, how to "kill" a snowflake (by melting it on one's skin). The dolls are presented, at first as a disappointing alternative to Maggie's occasional sentimental escapism. Unhappy that the voices she's been hearing behind the walls belong to a "pair of old dolls" and instead of the "real" (heavily idealized) family she had imagined, she attempts to figure out the dolls' mechanics. Initially, at least, she refuses to believe in them because she can't figure out how they work. Only when she suspends her disbelief and plays along does she become emotionally connected to them--yet it's clearly described as playing along. The teapot pot remains cold and empty, and Maggie's imagination provides the heat, just as her awakening sense of poetry transforms the faded rose wallpaper into a haven, a literal "child's garden of verses."
Set within such a realistic portrayal, the blurriness of the magic involved raises the question of what Cassedy means by that ambiguity. Perhaps Maggie, a sixth-grader who still entertains herself with imaginary friends, has simply gone around the bend to madness by imagining voices behind walls, ultimately locating the voices in two dolls she finds in the attic. Certainly the aunts, when they discover the dolls, don't perceive anything magical afoot (though it's not uncommon for unbelievers in children's books to have their doubts become self-fulfilling). Yet Uncle Morris's mysterious connection to the dolls seems to substantiate their reality--or perhaps Maggie just imagines his vague allusions are conspiratorial. The ending, which I never felt sure I understood as a kid, suggests they are, with Uncle Morris's presence as a new doll (after the real man dies of a heart condition). Or is it just that Maggie, distraught at the loss of the one adult she had cared about, inventing a more bearable ending whereby Uncle Morris doesn't have to die completely? That Cassedy balances her story perfectly on the lip of this uncertainty is what makes it so affecting.
Ultimately, Cassedy's careful treatment of Maggie's emotional awakening clarifies this balance, though it does so by widening, not reducing, its potential meanings. Though she's outwardly antisocial, Maggie longs for genuine emotional connection with someone else. She doesn't respect that which is entirely within her control; it's why she condescends to the backwoods girls and viciously dents the plastic face of the doll her aunt gives her at the book's outset (when Maggie declares, "'I don't play with dolls'"). It's Uncle Morris's unpredictability that compels her, compared with her predictably critical aunts. It's Timothy John's and Miss Christabel's refusal to comply with her expectations that allows her to suspend disbelief and see them as apart from herself. Considering this, I conclude that Cassedy does intend the dolls to be seen as real, not figments of imagination, since they have done what no aspect of Maggie's embittered mind had been able to achieve thus far: to imagine that emotional connection with other souls is possible despite her unhappy childhood. Belief in magic, that signature childhood perspective, is available to her, and love--which Cassedy presents (remarkably without sentiment) as a most mysterious suspension of disbelief--is her birthright after all....more
[spoiler alert] Richard Russo describes this third novel by Myla Goldberg as “a riveting read, both compelling and richly satisfying.” Russo wrote Emp[spoiler alert] Richard Russo describes this third novel by Myla Goldberg as “a riveting read, both compelling and richly satisfying.” Russo wrote Empire Falls, which I couldn’t put down, so I was inclined to trust his assessment. Yet having finished Friend, I wonder if Russo wasn’t acting a little like the false friend of Goldberg’s title, editorializing for convenience. The False Friend is based on a compelling premise: “I think, therefore I am is too vague. We are, because we remember.” This homily, helpfully provided in chapter 1, is explicated in through the memory of Celia, a thirtysomething urban professional, who returns to her suburban hometown to correct the record about the disappearance of her childhood best friend, Djuna. Djuna had disappeared under murky circumstances one afternoon when the girls were 11 years old, walking home from school with a group of “satellite” girls, wannabe friends. Celia, who had at the time claimed that Djuna had gotten into a stranger’s car, now feels sure that Djuna actually fell into a hole in the woods and that Celia herself had fabricated the kidnapping rather than help her friend, with whom she had been squabbling at the time. But the recollections of Celia’s parents, as well as the grown-up women the former accolytes have become, contradict Celia’s revisionism. We are, because we remember, but we remember things differently depending on our shifting agendas. So far, so good. The flashbacks to Celia and Djuna’s tyranny over their eager, self-debasing friends dramatizes the particular cruelties of preteen girls, a depiction that belongs alongside Julie Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater and Z.Z. Packer’s story “Brownies.”
The problem with The False Friend is that these brief flashbacks to Celia and Djuna’s social domination are so much more interesting than the relatively slow-paced “front story” of Celia’s interaction with her parents (who are detergent-commercial-sunshiney toward her) and her life with Huck, her bland good-guy boyfriend (who doesn’t deserve his allusive name). And the former accolytes—one visual artist whose work explores Djuna’s disappearance, one uber-smart Orthodox Jewish mother, and one formerly solicitous tomboy turned defiant transgender (or transsexual, it’s not clear)—are, for the five minutes of fame they each get, so much more interesting than Celia herself.
Goldberg’s language doesn’t help; many sentences are syntactically obscure, imbuing aesthetics with a sense of causation (“Spring had scrapped the need for a jacket”). Images are weighed down with portent. This could serve the story if I were convinced that the languge reflected Celia’s mentality as an unreliable, aesthetically rich narrative filter. Instead, the language feels like the proverbial “hand of the author,” steering Celia toward conclusions she never quite grasps herself. The closer Celia gets to uncovering (not even “understanding”) the injury she really caused on the day of Djuna’s disappearance, the murkier and blander Celia’s characterization becomes. What’s left at the end of the book is anticlimax, not revelation. Djuna’s mother, whom Celia visits in her one-by-one mea culpa tour, chides Celia, who had been a compelling kid, for not being a more interesting adult. This indictment, though meanspirited, is true, and true of the book as a whole. What’s meanspirited and primal in this book is what’s truest; what’s well-meaning and self-consciously educational or mature feels like editorializing, and we all know that what’s true is usually more compelling than what we wish were true....more
[spoiler alert] In "The Sky Below," her third novel, Stacy D'Erasmo continues the trajectory into impressionism begun in her second novel, "A Seahorse[spoiler alert] In "The Sky Below," her third novel, Stacy D'Erasmo continues the trajectory into impressionism begun in her second novel, "A Seahorse Year." As she blurs the line between realism and impressionism, her vision becomes more intense and her language sharper. In "A Seahorse Year," madness is the specter that drives the narrative; in "The Sky Below," it's longing. Gabriel--abandoned by his father at an early impressionable age (all of his ages seem impressionable)--longs for a return to the safe haven for imagination afforded by his boyhood home in Massachusetts. There, his dreamy mother and older sister had joined him in games, the best of which was an annual construction of a miniature "City" on the living-room floor, made out of collected household scraps, infused with familial love and imaginative scope for each individual. The father's departure punches an incomprehensible black hole in Gabe's cosmos, pulling the family into a financial mess that forces the sale of their beloved house and relocation to a depressing Florida motel, where his mother, dreamer turned reluctant businesswoman, becomes practical and emotionally distant.
Exiled in Florida, Gabe launches the first of many schemes aimed at recovering a home for his fancies, and in the process matures (in a way), becoming, as well as a dreamer and a burgeoning collage artist, a young burglar, drug dealer, and prostitute. Money represents access to a life worthy of his imagination; its spell strengthens (not surprisingly) once Gabe, bearing an art degree, moves to New York City. There, he collects money as avidly as he collects objects for his collages and photos for his day job as obituary writer at a failing newsweekly. Naturally, his vocations aren't the source of his wealth; to his more sordid identities, add ghostwriter and blackmailer. What's powerful about D'Erasmo's portrait of this rather unlikable man is Gabe's eye for beauty amid the refuse. Also, again, his longing: to arrive on the artistic scene, to buy a particular house in Brooklyn that symbolizes familial wholeness, to embody the sublime beauty and transformative power of the half-mortals, half-gods in the myths his mother had read to him in his boyhood. Meanwhile, his actual life is falling apart, as his boyfriend, sister, employers, and best friend each realize that their positions are subordinate to his ambitions, even if none of them (perhaps including Gabe) fully understands the metaphysical truth of those ambitions.
All of this desire and double-dealing needs a crisis, and D'Erasmo provides one, in the form of a health scare that leads Gabe to abandon the mess he's made in New York and pursue a more direct resolution of his existential angst. At first, the new setting--a former convent in rural Mexico where spiritual pilgrims mix with local residents--feels both unprepared and potentially predictable, and after several hundred pages of savoring D'Erasmo's gorgeous, jewel-like sentences, I drifted a little in Mexico. What saves the novel is what saves Gabe: a (filial) relationship with the young Julia, whose health, artistic expression, and spiritual transformation become more important to Gabe than his own. In this unexpected place, Gabe trades his mythical City for a real community, albeit one where he is not in control and must embrace a different sort of kinship than he had envisioned.
Despite this plot-heavy description, "The Sky Below" is at least as much about story itself, and, apart from the lush writing, that's what made it satisfying to me. Each of us brings stories out of our childhood, like a precious rock collection; each of us must decide what place to give that collection in our adult lives, and how much those stories will shape our adult identity and destiny. For Gabe, an artist whose specialty is collecting and recombining things, stories are even more powerful. It's telling that Gabe's older sister, who is also creatively gifted, has no such fond memories of the Massachusetts house, which she calls "that falling-down dollhouse with the mice and no heat." The same collection in another's hands adds up to something very different. In sketching the facets of this truth, D'Erasmo doesn't pretend to solve the question of how fate and individual will each shape Gabe's journey. Rather, in constructing his beautiful, flawed, longing consciousness, she collapses the two into a single glimmering narrative arc. ...more
What does art matter? That's one question that Peter Harris, a Manhattan art dealer, struggles with as part of a midlife crisis, which[spoiler alert]
What does art matter? That's one question that Peter Harris, a Manhattan art dealer, struggles with as part of a midlife crisis, which provides the narrative arc of "By Nightfall," Michael Cunningham's lyrical fifth novel. Art's power to reshape people's lives is one of Cunningham's signature themes, also considered eloquently in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Hours" (1998), an homage to Virginia Woolf's great novel "Mrs. Dalloway" and the backwaters of family life unsettled by it through the ages. The ennui of middle-class domesticity galvanized into escapism is another recurring Cunningham theme. Here, as in Cunningham's other books, the two strands run in tandem, and where they meet, there's smoke and, occasionally, fire.
Peter is married to Rebecca, a culture-magazine editor: his companion in rituals from Sunday "New York Times" to weekday morning ablutions (Cunningham describes them as "dance team" partners at their bathroom sink). Rebecca's kiss is so familiar to Peter that her mouth tastes "contiguous with the taste inside his own." They have had their brushes with tragedy (his gay brother has died of AIDS; a colleague has cancer; their estranged daughter, a college dropout-turned-bartender, spurns her parents' affection). Despite this, they are lucky ones, with reasonably interesting careers and a SoHo loft to call home. As Peter muses, "you can imagine bigger accomplishments, a more potent and inextinguishable satisfaction, but what you've made for yourself isn't bad, it's not bad at all." Yet he imagines (and perhaps hopes) that "in the face of all evidence...some terrible, blinding beauty is about to descend...orphan us, deliver us...[leaving] us wondering how exactly we're going to start it all over again."
The blinding beauty that descends is Rebecca's 23-year-old Yale-educated brother, Ethan. An Adonis-like drifter, as prone to drugs and spiritual wanderings as he is capable of conventional success, he brings Peter's niggling doubts about his life's course into sharp relief. Ethan, nicknamed Mizzy because his very conception was "a mistake," embodies "the sense that beauty is in fact the natural human condition, and not the rarest of mutations," as well as a timeless youth that Peter associates with possibility itself. The word "error" shares etymological roots with "wander" ("errantry," Webster's tells us, is "the quality, the condition, the fact of wandering, especially a roving in search of chivalrous adventure"). Mizzy's wandering from addiction to sobriety and back again, all while pondering a career of doing "Something in the Arts," reflects the aimlessness of an overeducated, underfocused generation whose humanistic potential is out of place in a professional world that rewards single-minded careerism over "lovely, gentle enigma" (which, Peter muses, is "not looking like a growth field").
Peter works out his own reservations about careerism (versus true genius) through his gallery, where sculptors and conceptual artists claw their way up from oblivion to fame. These mostly "levelheaded" young artists (their eyes fixed on their resumes) and the airy Mizzy (his eyes fixed on his reflection) represent two different takes on art's transformative power. Yet Peter is more intuitively drawn to Mizzy, the beautiful loser who begs the question of whether what we see as errant wandering may actually offer an unexpected path to grace--grace that one could never prepare for the way the up-and-coming artists strategize for their next professional coup. When Peter discovers that Mizzy is again involved with drugs, his dilemma about whether to keep the secret from Rebecca encapsulates his temptation to throw away conventional allegiances in favor of the vitality, or at least the escapism, that Mizzy represents. Mizzy's seductive affections in return for not blowing his cover--and Peter's enjoyment of them, to his own surprise--make the choice more personally freighted. The higher the stakes become, the better escapism looks.
Peter's erotic fascination with Mizzy verges on a classical appreciation of beauty. To Peter's art-dealer eye, Mizzy is a pastiche of cultural resonances through the ages. He is "satyrlike"; he has "a vaguely Ancient Egyptian aspect"; he is like a "medieval bas-relief"; he looks like a "swoony Renaissance Sebastian"; he resembles a Rodin bronze; "he feels like a fantasy he's having," a pure inspiration wearing cargo shorts (when he wears anything at all). He is a Platonic ideal, who engages Peter in dialogues about the prospects for misfit thinking, art, and love in society. Both Mizzy and Rebecca share the intrigue and self-possession of their erudite, eccentric family; yet Rebecca seems, to Peter's restless eye, like a story in denouement, whereas Mizzy's aura has yet to be brought to earth in the pedestrian specificity of an actual job, a partnership, a take on life. Mizzy seems, potentially, Peter's would-be lover, his "wife in boy-drag"; his accomplice; his resurrected dead brother; his second chance at fatherhood. Peter's bewilderment at how to fit Mizzy into his actual life deepens his sense that real beauty--which, he suspects, is inseparable from risk, passionate impulse, innovation, all those hallmarks of youth--may be found only by straying from respectable middle age, the conventional path he's worn. He half wants to embody these qualities himself and half wants "to own Mizzy, the way he wants to own art"--to "curate" him, along with the ideals he represents.
Yet Cunningham doesn't make Peter's dilemma as simple as a choice between corrosive conventionality or ennobling truth/beauty. Cunningham endows Peter with a tireless self-consciousness that's forever undercutting his idealism. Idealism can verge on pretentiousness, and self-awareness on narcissism. Peter balances uneasily between these, ever aware of his precarious footing. (After a riff on Peter's "not too calculated" luncheon outfit, Cunningham muses: "[T]he world constantly conspires to remind you: no one cares about your boots, pilgrim"). Likewise, Cunningham critiques Peter's self-flagellation about his role as a commercial wheeler-dealer rather than a midwife of genius (his assistant, a no-nonsense German woman, lovingly punctures his self-regard, reminding him, "'It's a business'" and that no, there's "'[nothing] even slightly heroic'" about his presumptions of an elevated perspective). Peter won't be allowed to ride any of his big thoughts into the sunset--including his idea of Mizzy, who becomes less a source of salvation the more Peter learns how ready Mizzy is to manipulate those who love him. An awkward parting in a Starbucks (not a sunset or other rosy revelation) is all that Mizzy has in store for Peter, who mocks himself, in an image borrowed from "Madame Bovary," as "banging on a tub to make a bear dance when we would move the stars to pity." Even so, despite having been played for a fool, Peter can't shake the sense that he's brushed something profound, surprising, and transformative in his encounter with Mizzy, even if that Something will never be his to collect, sell, or even fully understand.
Just as there is nothing simple to curate from Peter's relationship with Mizzy, there is no overly tidy epiphany in "By Nightfall." The novel is full of allusions to classic literature, from "Hamlet" to "Anna Karenina," from "Moby Dick" to "The Great Gatsby." It's as if "By Nightfall," like Mizzy, is its own pastiche of cultural references, tempting us to fetishize what gets more complicated the closer we look, and yet whose meaning also becomes harder to see the more we scrutinize (like the Statue of Liberty, which Cunningham describes as "so fraught with meaning that she's transcended meaning"). Many of us turn to great works of art and literature to search for their aesthetic resonance with our own struggles, and thus to make our lives feel more meaningful, more connected to a greater human story. Yet, as Peter discovers, even this effort, noble as it might seem, cannot go uncritiqued, or uncritically pursued, heedless of its impact on those we love.
One of Cunningham's canniest moves in "The Hours" is to position the literary mirror so that it reflects not only its characters (including his fictional version of Virginia Woolf and her readers) but also Cunningham's readers. That move is even more explicit in "By Nightfall," in which Peter ruminates so determinedly on the nature of art, its interpretation, and his own soul in its reflected light. Peter wants to see himself as "the hero of [his] own story," yet he pushes away the idea of himself as a great literary character. Indeed, far from embodying the genius he admires, Peter, ever in thrall to art and scrutinizing himself for meaning, overlooks a crucial lesson: his wife has been harboring escapist fantasies of her own, and this, instead of setting him free, feels like an unwelcome unmooring. "Oh, little man," Cunningham addresses his antihero (in a tone that, we know by now, is more affectionate than punishing). "You have brought down your house not through passion but by neglect. You have failed in the most base of ways--you have not imagined the lives of others." With Cunningham's incisive empathy for his characters, and his gorgeous prose to illuminate their struggles, the reader, at least, will be spared that indictment. Yet for us, as for Peter, it turns out that art is not a perfect map to meaning, nor is it the purest form of beauty. Instead, Cunningham, through his artistry, points us back to reality itself: never simple, never fully curated, always posing more questions to our restlessly searching souls than it could ever answer....more
[spoiler alert] A family drama set in contemporary San Francisco, this novel seems a literary precursor to the film "The Kids Are Alright": sparring l[spoiler alert] A family drama set in contemporary San Francisco, this novel seems a literary precursor to the film "The Kids Are Alright": sparring lesbian moms (one conventional, one artistic misfit) parenting a restless teenage son, whose biological father, a rebel tamed by a mainstream midlife career, dropping into the domestic scene now and then. But this is a much more piercing, less stereotypical examination of a nontraditional family than a two-hour, basically feel-good film can provide. What's here is distinctly anti-Hollywood, for Christopher, the teenage son, is diagnosed with schizophrenia, and his mental fracture both reflects and intensifies the divisions within and between the adults charged with his health and wholeness. Nan, his birth mother and the more conventional of his lesbian mothers, becomes the expected mama grizzly, sacrificing her other emotional ties in her efforts to slow Christopher's ever more frightening descent into madness. Hal, Christopher's (gay) biological father, a punk rocker-turned-accountant, appears to embark on a second adolescence as he struggles to find a partner for his externally put-together, internally needy soul. Marina, a painter whose artistic koan is to depict the perfect tree, has to confront her desire to roam outside her domestic life when that domestic life no longer provides stability she can rely on. [to be continued]...more