Lars Guthrie's Reviews > By Nightfall

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham
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Mar 13, 11

Read in February, 2011

Fiction is about finding truth in imagination. That gives writers license to occupy someone else’s time or milieu, to be whom they are not—another class, another gender, another race.

The test is readers’ belief. Characters have to be real. They must do what they do because of what they are, rather than doing what the writer wants to prove he can make them do.

Perhaps Michael Cunningham felt that a challenging test of his ability to make his readers believe was to write about a straight man suddenly overwhelmed by his inner homosexual. I don’t know. But ‘By Nightfall’ reads like an author out to prove that he can write about a straight man suddenly overwhelmed by his inner homosexual.

So Peter Harris, who might have been an interesting character, a Soho gallery owner who possibly has the right combination of contradictory personality quirks, business acumen, and aesthetic awareness to advance into the top tier of New York’s art market, becomes instead a symbol. A symbol of wanting to be ‘the one who wants to be free,’ ‘the one who’d do unspeakable things.’

Cunningham is a wonderful author with an exquisite eye for detail, and some of the passages in ‘By Nightfall’ are lyrically stunning. The eternally insomniac Peter gets out of bed and wanders to the tip of Manhattan, calling his sullen daughter Bea by cell phone on the way, and the reader is treated to an inside tour of the city, both provincially insular and extravagantly extroverted.

As he approaches Battery Park, Peter remembers it is where 'Moby Dick' begins with ‘a riff about this "mole" assaulted by waves.’ And then Peter senses ‘the black roil of the harbor, netted with light, he can smell it suddenly…this particular seawater…this finger of land, this "mole"…the city’s only point of contact with something bigger and more potent than itself.’

Would that Cunningham had allowed Peter more of that late night roaming, and more contact with the novel’s truly interesting characters, like Bea, and Peter’s wife, Rebecca, and his friend Bette, dying of cancer.

In another astonishing passage filled with precise and visual language, Cunningham accompanies Bette and Peter as they visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and view Damien Hirst’s shark in its formaldehyde-filled display case, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.’

But the poetry of Manhattan spaces and the intricacies of complicated people take a back seat with the entrance of Rebecca’s brother, a specimen of incredible physical beauty. He’s also emotionally and intellectually vapid, a coke fiend and second-rate scam artist.

With his appearance, Cunningham seems to become just as distracted by the superficial as Peter is. The artists, and art, in Peter’s gallery are reduced to caricature. The novel hooks on a metaphor for the emptiness of contemporary art that is spectacularly clumsy. See, underneath the attractive wrappings there’s really nothing at all.

The art and the pretty boy seem silly and meaningless. Above all, they seem to be there only to make a point, not to tell a story about people you believe are really people.
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