2.09.2011

The New York of By Nightfall: A Novel by Michael Cunningham

By Nightfall: A NovelFor fans of his popular novel, The Hours (2000) and subsequent works, a new novel by Michael Cunningham titled By Nightfall: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages, 2010) has been anxiously awaited. The reviews of the novel, released this past fall, have been mostly positive. Ron Charles of The Washington Post (October 6, 2010) credits Cunningham for mastering the fashionable mid-life crisis novel. For her review in The New York Times ("Sibling Rivalry," October 1, 2010), Jeanette Winterson praises his prose -  “Cunningham writes so well, and with such an economy of language, that he can call up the poet’s exact match." In addition to the merits of the story and prose, New Yorkers may want to check out the novel for its portrayal of the contemporary city. References to specific places abound. For those curious about characters that dine at Prune, live in an art-filled loft on Mercer Street, walk through the galleries of the Met to see Damien Hirst's shark, or venture to the wilds of artistic Bushwick, then By Nightfall will provide rich rewards.

The situational plot is easy enough to tell. Caught somewhere between the worlds of loft living in SoHo with an attractive editor wife and a gallery business in Chelsea, 44-year-old art dealer and insomniac Peter Harris trips into an unexpected encounter with Beauty. The platonic form manifests itself in the arrival of his wife's beautiful and much younger brother, Mizzy. As a dealer of contemporary art, Peter has yearned for an artist of beauty, a seemingly unattainable quest, but with this well-proportioned young man, one who reminds him of his wife in their younger days, he may have found the object of his desire. He wants to “curate” him.

While the character-driven plot relies on the time-honored conventions of the interrupted ritual and arrival of the stranger, Cunningham displays great skill in expressing the internal longing of his main characters. Caught up in role-playing and dressing for the part, these contemporary New Yorkers find their lives too often circumscribed by social expectations and ambition but completely bereft of spontaneity, desire and passion. There's a great deal of loss that haunts them. Peter remembers his dead glamorous older brother. The couple’s own daughter, Bea, has moved to Boston and settled for a life of low expectations. Cunningham describes Peter as wanting to be "a denizen of the present" but who “can't stop himself from mourning some lost world." He senses Mercer Street isn't the place to make him happy, with its "streetside piles of black garbage bags and shrill little boutiques that come and go."

While the drama plays out within a rather claustrophobic city, the novel expands the setting in unexpected ways. A particularly evocative scene involves Peter strolling downtown at night. As he walks south on Broadway, he passes through SoHo and the Lower East Side, complete with tart characterizations for each neighborhood. As he passes through Chinatown, he takes out his cell phone to call his daughter. She is a mystery to Peter. Of the setting, Cunningham writes, "the farther you go from your own fiefdom, the more ludicrous are your haircut, your clothes, your opinions, your life." By the time he reaches the Battery, Peter’s conversation with Bea will leave him that much more out to sea. In the next scene, Peter wanders through Bushwick, another mysterious unchartered territory. His emotional life also veers off the charts. It will take some time for him to get back to Mercer Street.

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