Sunday, November 17, 2013
Late Review: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham
by Michael Cunningham
Fourth Estate, London: 2011
Another example of reaching for a book for its cover. I confess, however, I wasn't expecting to like it. Peter and Rebecca are a couple in their forties in New York, both working in the art world: he is an art dealer, she is a magazine editor. They have a grown up daughter living in less than salubrious surroundings in Chicago who they both feel they have failed. Their relationship is clearly comfortable but long-in-the-tooth with all that implies. Rebecca has a young brother, known as Mizzy in the family, short for, 'the mistake', he came late to the family and is now in his early twenties: he's a stunning beauty and a troubled young man with a history of drug abuse. At the opening of the novel he comes to stay with Peter and Rebecca. Shortly afterwards, Peter returns home one day and, going into the bathroom, he finds that person in the shower he thought was Rebecca was in fact Mizzy. The younger man's beauty and his resemblance to Peter's wife as a young woman when they first met bring on the crisis of the novel.
Other reviewers have found the three main characters difficult to like and it is true that we experience the story from so far inside Peter's point of view that we hear all the uncensored thoughts in his head, but then, we can we not all be sure that if the uncensored thoughts in our heads were broadcast we would be hard to like? The extraordinary insight we get into Peter's thoughts and feelings is a challenge, leaving us as readers to collate the things he actually says out loud, the things he does and the way he treats people and in that to meet the man both inside and out. The book is essentially about a mid-life crisis but this unusually clear point of view serves to help us realise that the term 'mid-life crisis' is actually rather condescending and it's status as a cliche minimises a stage in life which is, in fact, full of meaning as well as being a real point of serious crisis for many.
For Peter the crisis is one of beauty, youth, and sexual ambiguity. Mizzy forms a focal point at which important elements in Peter's life collide: the death of his gay older brother from (we are left to infer) HIV/AIDS, the state of his marriage, his poor relationship with his daughter and his feeling of dissatisfaction with his career in the contemporary art scene of New York. His feelings for Mizzy interact with all of these threads and threaten to tear them all apart. It is in this that the novel finds its direction and tension. It is unclear until the very end of the book what decisions Peter will make and how his life will be from that point. The book ends with a moment of decision.
The New York art scene is something we see in great detail throughout the novel and it isn't an very flattering portrait that is drawn of the rich clients and appearance/position obsessed dealers. But Cunningham uses art in the novel much more positively, as a means of meditating upon beauty: he draws on an extremely wide range of reference material from Rodin to Thomas Mann to Damian Hirst and puts Mizzy alongside their creations as a creation of both Cunningham and of Peter's mind. The whole novel plays with the open question of whether Mizzy is, himself, a piece of artwork, is he the beauty that Peter has been searching for his whole career? Or is it all as ironic as a shark in a tank of formaldehyde.
Cunningham is feted for a style that is usually described as 'spare', 'clean', and 'elegant'. I found it to be somewhere between stream-of-counsciousness and a kind of verbal impressionism: a perfect match for a story about art, beauty, youth and love and what happens when it seems you might loose all of them.