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[353] By Nightfall – Michael Cunningham

” It’s not lust, not precisely lust, though it has lust in it. It’s a pure, thrilling, and slightly terrifying apprehension in what he will later call beauty, though the word is insufficient. ” [110]

Michael Cunningham is one of the few authors who can use the English language to present such beautiful, lyrical writing. By Nightfall, set in the present day SoHo, takes place over a short period of time. The story starts off modestly slow, painting a picture of Peter and Rebecca’s lackluster marriage. A gallery owner and art nut, Peter, mid forties, is in flux with his life and on a soul searching journey. To many envious eyes they are Manhattan denizens who, with every reason, have to be happy.

The Mistake is coming to stay for a while. [3]

Mistake with a capital M is Rebecca’s youngest brother whose appearance sets the novel in motion. Ethan is beautiful but flawed and directionless. A former drug addict, he wants to do something in the arts. But little do Harrises know that his turn-up will upend all their lives. One day Peter comes home and mistakes “Mizzy” for his wife, “the shower sluicing away the last twenty years, a girl again.” Youth personified, Mizzy looks like an idealized, sculpted warrior. Peter is mortified that he is drawn erotically to him.

How can Mizzy, alone among the realm of men, excite him so? Is it possible to be gay for one man only? [119]

The novel is written in a combination of voices that switch from one sentence to the next—a third-person omniscient narrator, a sparse second-person interlocutor, and Peter’s own thoughts. For the most part the story is caught within Peter’s own ruminations, which take on a philosophical assessment of his life. Narratives at time can be trapped by insular sound, thus falling into a rut, but every sentence is a work of art.

We insist, of course, on punishing our predators; we stab out their eyes or fill their bellies with stones or push them into their own ovens, but they’re our favorite enemies, we fear and love them, why wouldn’t we when they find for our flesh and give not one shit about our secret inner parts? [116]

Heavily character-driven, By Nighttime is a deeply psychological piece of work, albeit its leanness. What Mizzy presents to Peter is twofold: as a younger, somewhat androgynous version of Rebecca, he recalls the lost youth in which Peter’s gay brother plays a huge part; as a vibrant, Mercury-like sculpture, he offers the passion that is missing from the art Peter sells. Mizzy’s attractiveness is much less a beacon of lust than it is a reflection of departed opportunity. In other word, Peter falls in love with beauty manifested in Mizzy.

And so, he knows. He wants, he needs, to do the immoral, irresponsible thing. He wants to let this boy court his own destruction. [202]

It’s difficult to say whether this novel achieves the same standing as The Hours, but for sure one cannot gainsay the beauty of Cunningham’s writing. He manages to cover a broad range of topics in By Nightfall, not the least of which is relationships, but desire, mortality, and loss. If there’s one thing that is all-encompassing, the theme of beauty—the pursuit, use, and abuse of it, pervades the immaculately crafted novel.

238 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


6 Responses

  1. I have only read one Cunningham novel, The Hours, and I think I was a little too young to appreciate it at the time. I thought it was good, but as I was only a teenager at the time, I think I would appreciate it more now. I kept my copy, so I think I’ll have to re-read it one of these days. And I would like to read more Cunningham too… but I did try Specimen Days a while back and could not connect with it at all, so maybe this is the one that will make me a believer?

    • By Nightfall employs the same style Cunnigham is known for: a bit of a stream of consciousness, a combination of third person narratives and 2nd person address, but I find By Nightfall more accessible. The Hours was a difficult (arduous) read for me because the story itself, which spanned over three decades, is more complex. Whereas By Nightfall is a stright-forward.

  2. I love The Hours and would like to read more of his works…this one sounds deep

  3. I agree it’s a more accessible work than The Hours. What really struck me about this one, though, was that I became so much more involved in it after the 3/4 mark; usually I get restless at that point in a book, but this one pulled me in deeper there.

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