By Nightfall/Michael Cunningham: Reflections

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

If I have at times been mildly bewildered by some of the plot points in Michael Cunningham's new novel, By Nightfall, I have never been less than enthralled by the sentences this artist makes, by the craftsmanship of this intimately close-over-the-shoulder rendering of one Peter Harris, aesthete in mid-life crisis. 

The story can be easily summarized—Peter and his wife, Rebecca, are comfortably married but perhaps privately disillusioned when Rebecca's much younger brother arrives, a beautiful bi-sexual with a wayward touch who is using drugs again.  Peter finds the brother's presence distracting, even deconstructing.  He is reminded, increasingly, of his own brother, now dead "of a virus." He questions nearly everything about him—his career as an art dealer, his history as a father, his reasons for marrying Rebecca—while maintaining, throughout most of the book, the sheen of business-as-usual.

We are given, through Cunningham, Peter's history, and at times I found it difficult to bridge connections between Peter the child, Peter the adolescent, and Peter the middle aged.  My disorientation was utterly beside the point.  For there are so many pleasures in this book, so many passages I envied for their ease and suggestible insights.  Let me share just two with you here:

Maybe it's 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. 

Or how about this Gatsby-esque moment, which we find early on in the book:

They are crossing Central Park along Seventy-ninth Street, one of hte finest of all nocturnal taxi rides, the park sunk in its green-black dream of itself, its little green-gold lights marking circles of grass and pavement at their bases.  There are, of course, desperate people out there, some of them refugees, some of them criminals; we do as well as we can with these impossible contradictions, these endless snarls of loveliness and murder.

When I grow up, I want to write at least one sentence like at least one of those.


kristen spina said...

I love his writing. He makes it seem so effortless, which, of course, it is not. But then, that's how I think of you and your writing, too. Beautiful. I'll have to add this one to the books stacked by my bed.

Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I've heard so many great raves about this book, that I can
't wait to read it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Beth.

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