By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

By NightfallI read The Hours back in about 2003 and completely loved it – and loved it again when I re-read it maybe ten years later. I’ve read a couple of other Cunningham books (one fiction, one non-fiction) since then, but there are a few others waiting on my shelves, and I’m still trying to build up what I think of him as an author. Was The Hours an amazing aberration, or do I love him? To be honest, By Nightfall (2010) hasn’t completely cleared up that question.

The novel is from the perspective of an art dealer, Peter Harris. It’s not in the first person, but it is thoughts and personality which infuse the narrative – occasionally (as we’ll see) making it unclear whether the opinions are the character’s or the narrator’s. Peter’s career is going well, though he is constantly trying to square commercialism with his own appreciation for art. Is it acceptable to take on artists he doesn’t like, in order to make more money? He’s saddened by the way his daughter is distancing herself from him, having dropped out of college at least temporarily. And he’s feeling a bit static in his marriage to Rebecca, an editor.

It is a character study. And it is one which takes place surrounded by privilege. Peter is well-off, lives on the ‘right’ side of town, and is the sort of person who refers to his furniture by the name of the designer. This privilege is perhaps most pointed when he has to meet with somebody marginally less well off (asterisks my own):

Bette is already seated when he arrives. Peter follows the hostess through the dark red faux Victoriana of JoJo. When Bette sees Peter she offers a nod and an ironic smile (Bette, a serious person, would wave only if she were drowning). The smile is ironic, Peter suspects, because, well, here they are, at her behest, and sure, the food is good but then there’s the fringe and the little bandy-legged tables. It’s a stage set, it’s whimsical, for G*d’s sake; but Bette and her husband, Jack, have had their inherited six-room prewar on York and Eighty-fifth forever, he makes a professor’s salary and she makes mid-range art-dealer money and f*ck anybody who sneers at her for failing to live in downtown in a loft on Mercer Street in a neighborhood where the restaurants are cooler.

We are put into the mindset of somebody who thinks that fringe on tables is a major issue; we must look through the lens of somebody who probably doesn’t have anything from Ikea in his house. Perhaps that’s you too, and this wouldn’t be an obstacle to overcome, but I had to jump from my world of Argos flat-pack into this moneyed existence of self-indulgence. A jump that I can do with ease when it’s also back in time, but which somehow took some effort when it was only across an ocean.

I suppose the bigger obstacle, perhaps, is the name dropping. Peter is an art dealer, so of course we move into a world of artists – and I was constantly confronted by my own ignorance. This is my problem, not Cunningham’s, of course – though it didn’t necessarily help the world building when I didn’t know if the artists were real or fictional, or missed references to their styles which were important to describing a scene. Is it pretentious of Cunningham, or simply the accurate depiction of a type of man? Hard to say.

This aside, it is a beautifully and thoughtfully written novel. I’m not married and I don’t have children – I have no idea about Cunningham’s status on either – but I was firmly convinced by his portrayal of the anxieties of both. There is strain and misunderstanding and moments of connective joy – it feels like a poetic and true depiction. And an already complex scenario is rendered more complex by the arrival of Ethan, Rebecca’s younger brother, known as ‘Mizzy’ – short for Mistake – because he was born so many years after his three older sisters.

From the moment Ethan appears, he is intensely sexualised – even fetishised. Seeing half through Peter’s eyes and half through the objective narrator’s, it still isn’t much of a surprise when Peter starts to feel attracted to Ethan – even with Ethan’s fairly nuanced character, he has clearly been brought to the page to be an object of attraction.

What follows isn’t anything as simple as a love triangle, but it has the complexity and style that I’ve come to expect of Cunningham. The writing is the right side of poetic – so that it feels thoughtful and moving without being showy or obtrusive. Somewhat surprisingly, it is the structure that lets down By Nightfall a bit – I say surprisingly, because structure is what Cunningham used so brilliantly in The Hours. It feels too heavily weighted towards the end, where characters develop rapidly – and then, a little hurriedly, the novel comes to a close. It’s not often that I think a novel should be longer than it is, but I think By Nightfall could have benefited from another 50 pages or so.

Despite all this, it’s a very good novel – if it were the first I’d read by Cunningham, I think I’d be keen to explore more by him; as it’s the third novel I’ve read by him, I can’t help thinking that the other two were a bit better. But I’ll keep exploring the options on my shelves, and build up my understanding of who he is as a writer.

16 thoughts on “By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

  • September 19, 2017 at 6:31 am
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    I think I’m having the same problem as you. I loved The Hours, but I read The Snow Queen and it didn’t live up to it.

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    • September 20, 2017 at 10:13 pm
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      I did hear fairly lukewarm things about it, but I’m sure I’ll end up trying it one day!

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    • September 20, 2017 at 10:14 pm
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      I really liked his non-fiction, about Provincetown, so should see if he’s done anything else in this sphere…

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  • September 19, 2017 at 10:11 am
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    Of the three Cunninghams I’ve read, I liked By Nightfall most, or at least responded to it most readily. It’s probably the presence of Mizzy. The thing I love about Cunningham is his romanticism, which was the one redeeming feature of The Snow Queen, which I found a bore otherwise. You mention pretension, and that’s a word that often occurs to me when I’m reading him. On the very first page of By Nightfall a man is mentioned, then parenthesised with ‘stately, plump Buck Mulligan?’. Why? I get that he’s quoting Ulysses, but I can’t understand why. I’m sure this happens elsewhere in the book, the pointless tacking on of literary references. But perhaps he has a perfectly good reason for doing it and the failing is mine (which seems more likely).

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    • September 20, 2017 at 10:16 pm
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      Oh yes, that Ulysses reference felt so bizarre! And self-indulgent… and, since in the narrator’s voice, all a bit odd. Oh, and that’s another anti-recommendation for The Snow Queen – thanks!

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  • September 19, 2017 at 11:39 am
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    The name dropping is definitely part of the character’s world. I know people from this milieu in New York (and I am sure they exist in London and everywhere else) who are so far inside their own bubbles they just assume that the rest of the world knows what they know. Or maybe it is that they don’t care if others aren’t following the thread.

    If I didn’t think that Cunningham was writing satirically, I would have hated the book. Also, while think that someone of Cunningham’s ability could write a bad book, I don’t think he could write a clueless book. And I think if one doesn’t accept the satirical aspects of the character, Cunningham looks pretty clueless (and pretentious).

    I appreciate the fact that you don’t blame Cunningham for what you don’t know. When the book came out I remember reading a blog review in which the blogger expressed annoyance that Cunningham used so many artist names. He wondered “Who the hell is Klimt?”. All I could think was “Use Google you dimwit”. Never before have we had it so easy to check up on these things.

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    • September 20, 2017 at 10:17 pm
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      I remembered you saying that about this book – the Klimt thing – and I definitely agree with you. Klimt I do know, but others I didn’t, and I managed the gargantuan effort of googling the artists referenced to find out more details. Not too hard, is it?

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  • September 19, 2017 at 12:47 pm
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    I’ve not read this author and now making a note of the recommendations.

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    • September 20, 2017 at 10:18 pm
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      Rush towards The Hours, Mystica!

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  • September 19, 2017 at 4:26 pm
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    I do so look forward to your blog posts, and appreciate very much the time and thought that goes into your reviews. I always feel that you approach each and every book with not only enthusiasm, but an even and fair hand. Which brings me to my long winded question. I have not read “By Nightfall”, and after reading your informative review above, to be honest, I am not sure that I will or not. But I was struck by your desciption of the character Peter’s self questioning struggle with “Is it acceptable to take on artists he doesn’t like, in order to make money”. It echoes my internal reading struggle recently which is “Is it acceptable for me to take on books with characters I really do not like, in order to get to the ending, and a sometimes most unsatisfactory ending at that?” It’s not that I don’t enjoy being challenged, or exploring the human condition or psyche, or wish to learn and/or experience more of others perhaps unlike myself. But truly I wonder “Is it worth it?” I recently picked up “The Party” by Elizabeth Day, and was so put off by one of the characters, that I had to set it down again. I doubt I will pick it back up. I wonder if this character dislike is snobbishness, some sort of intellectual laziness or perhaps even a repulsion for those characteristics I fear most in myself? How do you push through books that feel more like a dreaded Middle School English assignment than pleasure or even an educational or emotional or experience? Are you just made of sterner stuff than I am, and my mind just going to rot? Yours, as well as your readers thoughts most welcome, as I cannot help but think it’s not in my best interest to spend the second half of my life re reading books I loved.

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    • September 20, 2017 at 10:19 pm
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      Thank you for your lovely comment! And it’s a good question – I’ve got much better at giving up on books over the past few years, and so I don’t push through if it’s not working before around the halfway point.

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  • September 19, 2017 at 5:22 pm
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    “…I had to jump from my world of Argos flat-pack into this moneyed existence of self-indulgence. A jump that I can do with ease when it’s also back in time, but which somehow took some effort when it was only across an ocean.”

    I have this problem too, but never saw it so clearly. Why doesn’t wealth and pretension bother me in older books? I’ll have to think about that some more. Possibly something about nostalgia and the past being presented without the flaws I’m all too well aware of in the modern world. I am fine with pretension being skewered in modern books, but it doesn’t sound like that’s what is happening in this book.

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    • September 20, 2017 at 10:21 pm
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      I do need to investigate my double standards more! Perhaps it’s just because it’s feasible that I could meet these people, and wouldn’t enjoy their pretensions, whereas I’m unlikely to time travel…

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  • September 19, 2017 at 9:01 pm
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    Like you, I loved The Hours (but perhaps that has something to do with my love for VW), but I have not read anything else by Cunningham. Perhaps this is not the best one to start with, then…

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    • September 20, 2017 at 10:21 pm
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      The Hours kicked off my love of VW, so I have a debt of gratitude!

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