Saturday, September 17, 2011

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham: Impressions


A friend of mine leant me By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham a couple months ago, saying I should read it if I liked The Hours. While I didn't enjoy it as much as his most well-known novel, it was still an engaging, fast read with the occasional delightful little insight.

By Nightfall is told in the third person, but solely from the perspective of Peter Harris, an early 40-something, mildly successful art dealer that lives in Soho. As a reader, you spend a lot of time (too much, really) inside Peter's head, subject to all his self-musings, self-consciousness, self-criticism & self-admonishings (noticing a pattern?) over worrying about his own problems when there are people far worse off than he. (Those come across as a little disingenuous, more of, I think I'm supposed to be worried about other people but I'm really just not and I feel bad about it - does that make me a bad person? I don't want to be a bad person and I don't like feeling bad about others' downtroddenness so I wish their lives could at least appear to be comfortable enough so that I didn't feel I should feel bad about being much better off than them and still having Problems of my own, which are bothering me. Oh, woe is me.)

It takes place in the very recent past, after the market crash of 2008 and the economic downturn, a time when rich people didn't want to appear too flamboyant about their richness because it would seem, well, tacky. And rich people are all about appearances, the poor souls. The novel is set over the course of a week of Peter's life, during which time his wife Rebecca's wanderlust and, well, lost, much-younger-brother (Mizzy) comes to town, for whom Peter finds he has ambiguous feelings, which causes a mid-life crisis of sorts.  It seems Mizzy is rendered an aimless, beautiful drug-addict because he must live in the shadow of his older sisters' various successes, poor lad. He had to go hang out in Japan for a while, at some monasteries, but that doesn't give him a sense of purpose, either, and now he's globe-trotting again. I know, it's all very tragic. So now he's setting up temporary camp in his older sister's swank loft apartment in Soho. Oh, the tragedy. Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. Very wealthy, privileged people are people too, after all, and still can experience tragedy, although, I don't find purposelessness tragic, merely self-indulgent, at least, in this case, despite the fact that he's young. Although, I suppose, when your nickname, Mizzy, is short for The Mistake... what can you expect?

One of the most unbelievable accounts in the novel comes when Peter mistakes Mizzy for his wife... while he's in the shower. Really? Come on. With clothes involved, it could be remotely believable, but not without. Rebecca, Peter's wife, is painted as an icy stranger, overly concerned about Mizzy's well-being. Peter describes Rebecca as thus, as they lie in bed together on a Sunday morning with the New York Times:
They do not lie close to each other. Rebecca is absorbed in the book review. Here she is, grown from a tough, wise girl to a savvy and rather cool-hearted woman, weary of reassuring Peter about, well, almost everything: grown to be a severe if affectionate critic. Here is her no-nonsense girlhood transmogrified into a womanly capacity for icy, calmly delivered judgments. 
"Womanly capacity"? Obviously, I'm going to take issue with that. Men have the same capacity for piercing the heart with statements calculated to do just that. And this is how he views his wife? Judgmental because she's tired of reassuring him? How low is this man's self-esteem that his wife's to blame for not boosting him up enough?

It appears I didn't enjoy this book at all, and though it's true I read many passages with eyes rolling, that's not the whole story. Cunningham has a knack for capturing - with uncomfortable accuracy - those intimate interactions we have with people whom we've known for years, with whom we've established a comfortable rapport that can turn into assumptions about another that then turns us into strangers interacting with our own out-dated projections of the other person instead of continuing to work (it can be work) to stay in tune with each others' ever-changing subtle natures. These two are clearly out of sync with each other, and a strong, judgmental resentment has been built around their own misconceptions of whom their spouse is which doesn't at all match with whom they want their spouse to be.  That is the danger we face in long-term intimate partnerships, such as marriage, and it is what we have to work to avoid to make such relationships survive. The dialogue is normally wry and witty banter, usually enjoyable to read, and though Peter's self-conscious pretensions are trying, the novel does capture, with some accuracy, the weird self-critical back-and-forth that can go on in one's head in times of life-crises, the ones that occasionally lead to a little self-insight:
Beauty--the beauty Peter craves--is this, then: a human bundle of accidental grace and doom and hope. Mizzy must have hope, he must, he wouldn't shine like this if he were in true despair, and of course he's young, who in this world despairs more exquisitely than the young, that's something the old tend to forget.  
I'd say you should read this if you're curious, but be ready to take the self-delusional pretensions with a grain of salt. It was unique in its ever-second-guessing-of-oneself nature, told in the third person, and I'm guessing most of us would be lying if we said we've never gone through such times, even if we haven't reached mid-life crises yet. Greg over at New Dork Review of Books warned me about its pretentiousness when I started reading, and I wonder if that colored my experience. Hard to say. Despite my criticism, I think I enjoyed it a wee bit more than he did.

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