There’s an extraordinary,dazzling passage toward the end of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998novel, TheHours, that gets me everytime I read it. Atthe end of the exhausting emotional day when Cunningham’s main character,Clarissa Vaughan, had planned a party for the writer friend dying of AIDS (whohad dubbed her “Mrs. Dalloway”), she insteadfound herself consoling his bereaved mother. Shereflects:
Welive our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep—it’s as simple andordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills;more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured bysome disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this forconsolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds andexpectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, thougheveryone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitablybe followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still,we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything,for more.
It’shard to find more beautiful, heart-rending sentences than these, andCunningham’s new novel, By Nightfall, is also filled withsuch moments. Butit is also possible for a work of fiction to be both lapidary and lackluster—polishedto a brilliant sheen but lacking not so much depth or even substance butsubstantiality. This, alas, is the case with By Nightfall, ameditative book, which, despite some lovely prose, in the endamounts to a slight, not terribly affecting tale ofmid-life crisis.
Thistime around, Cunningham’s central character is a long-married New York artdealer in his forties, desperately seeking the sort of transcendence Clarissadescribes. Peter Harris recalls just such a glowing moment from his earlyteens: watching his older brother Matthew and his radiant best friend Joannawading in Lake Michigan during a family vacation. His vision is “apure, thrilling, slightly terrifying apprehension of what he will later callbeauty, though the word is insufficient. It’sa tingling sense of divine presence, of the unspeakable perfection ofeverything that exists now and will exist in the future, embodied by Joanna andhis brother.”
This moment continues toresonate through the decades with Peter, in part because, by the age of 23,Matthew was dead, of AIDS.Twenty-fiveyears later, Peter still mourns him. Healso rues “the sense of dangerous inspiration his [own] life refuses toprovide.” Cunningham writes, “A virus ate Matthew. Timeate Joanna. What’s eatingPeter?” Desperate for “something to adore,” Peter craves”this sense of himself in the presence of something gorgeous andevanescent, something (someone) that shines through the frailty offlesh….” He has spent his life looking for such transporting bursts ofbeauty—in his wife, Rebecca, intheir unhappy daughter, in the artists he represents, and finally, mostmisguidedly, in Rebecca’s much-younger, wayward brother, who comes to stay withthe Harrises in their downtown loft, a stopover on his destructive journeytoward oblivion.
Peter’s”perfectly cordial,increasingly remote wife” edits a threatened artsand culture journal. Their only child, 20-year-old Bea, hasdropped out of college and bitterly blames her unhappiness on her father, whomshe believes didn’t find her special or attractive enough to warrant his fullattention. Rebecca comes from a warm but haphazard Richmond family whichbeguiled Peter, down to her brilliant baby brother, named Ethan but called Mizzy,short for “the Mistake.” By 23—the same age atwhich Peter’s brother died—Mizzy has not only dropped out of college (Yale),but has also attempted to find and lose himself in drugs and far-flung travel.
WhenMizzy comes to stay inNew York, he reminds Peter uncannily of Rebecca 20 yearsearlier, but also evokes his own lost brother. Could this “human bundle ofaccidental grace and doom and hope”—whogoes to devious lengths to avoid being sent back to rehab—be what Peterhas been seeking all along? Is he worth upending hislife for? Mizzy’s arrival causes Peter, already prone to self-doubt, toquestion every aspect of the life he’s built for himself—his marriage, hisparenting, his artists, his career.
Cunninghampaints a sharp portrait of an enervated art scene, in which visionaries seem tohave “been lost to drugs and discouragement” and have been replacedby guildsmen. It’s a world in which art is commodified and objectified—”the Groff,” “the Krim”—and 40-year-oldsfeel ancient and passé.
WhatPeter hopes to find in art—”rescue from solitude and subjectivity; thesense of company in history and the greater world; the human mysterysimultaneously illuminated and deepened…a look into the depth of the humanother,” is also, in part, what we seek in literature. But what By Nightfalllacksis precisely that “sense of company in history and the greater world”—whichThe Hoursachieved so exquisitely by interlacing Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway with a contemporarystory about AIDS, love, and grief that transcended its characters and resultedin stunning insights into this mortal coil.
Cunningham’snew novel, in contrast, despite its attempts to grapple with questions aboutthe role of beauty and love in our lives, fails to strike a universal note. Itremains a portrait of one man’s existential crisis in a tightly circumscribed,very particular but not particularly endearing circle who realize they are”impossibly fortunate;frighteningly fortunate” but are still unhappy.Indescribing an art dealer who keeps finding artists whose work helikes well enough but “doesn’t adore…wouldn’treach into a fire for,” Cunningham unfortunately pinpoints how we feelabout ByNightfall.