By Nightfall

There's an extraordinary, dazzling passage toward the end of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 novel, The Hours, that gets me every time I read it. At the end of the exhausting emotional day when Cunningham's main character, Clarissa Vaughan, had planned a party for the writer friend dying of AIDS (who had dubbed her "Mrs. Dalloway"), she instead found herself consoling his bereaved mother. She reflects:

We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep—it's as simple and ordinary 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 by some disease or, if we're very fortunate, by time itself. There's just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.

It's hard to find more beautiful, heart-rending sentences than these, and Cunningham's new novel, By Nightfall, is also filled with such moments. But it is also possible for a work of fiction to be both lapidary and lackluster—polished to a brilliant sheen but lacking not so much depth or even substance but substantiality. This, alas, is the case with By Nightfall, a meditative book, which, despite some lovely prose, in the end amounts to a slight, not terribly affecting tale of mid-life crisis.

 

This time around, Cunningham's central character is a long-married New York art dealer in his forties, desperately seeking the sort of transcendence Clarissa describes. Peter Harris recalls just such a glowing moment from his early teens: watching his older brother Matthew and his radiant best friend Joanna wading in Lake Michigan during a family vacation. His vision is "a pure, thrilling, slightly terrifying apprehension of what he will later call beauty, though the word is insufficient. It's a tingling sense of divine presence, of the unspeakable perfection of everything that exists now and will exist in the future, embodied by Joanna and his brother."

 

This moment continues to resonate through the decades with Peter, in part because, by the age of 23, Matthew was dead, of AIDS. Twenty-five years later, Peter still mourns him. He also rues "the sense of dangerous inspiration his [own] life refuses to provide." Cunningham writes, "A virus ate Matthew. Time ate Joanna. What's eating Peter?" Desperate for "something to adore," Peter craves "this sense of himself in the presence of something gorgeous and evanescent, something (someone) that shines through the frailty of flesh...." He has spent his life looking for such transporting bursts of beauty—in his wife, Rebecca, in their unhappy daughter, in the artists he represents, and finally, most misguidedly, in Rebecca's much-younger, wayward brother, who comes to stay with the Harrises in their downtown loft, a stopover on his destructive journey toward oblivion.

 

Peter's "perfectly cordial, increasingly remote wife" edits a threatened arts and culture journal.  Their only child, 20-year-old Bea, has dropped out of college and bitterly blames her unhappiness on her father, whom she believes didn't find her special or attractive enough to warrant his full attention. Rebecca comes from a warm but haphazard Richmond family which beguiled Peter, down to her brilliant baby brother, named Ethan but called Mizzy, short for "the Mistake." By 23—the same age at which 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.

 

When Mizzy comes to stay in New York, he reminds Peter uncannily of Rebecca 20 years earlier, but also evokes his own lost brother. Could this "human bundle of accidental grace and doom and hope"—who goes to devious lengths to avoid being sent back to rehab—be what Peter has been seeking all along? Is he worth upending his life for? Mizzy's arrival causes Peter, already prone to self-doubt, to question every aspect of the life he's built for himself—his marriage, his parenting, his artists, his career.

 

Cunningham paints a sharp portrait of an enervated art scene, in which visionaries seem to have "been lost to drugs and discouragement" and have been replaced by guildsmen. It's a world in which art is commodified and objectified—"the Groff," "the Krim"—and 40-year-olds feel ancient and passé.

 

What Peter hopes to find in art—"rescue from solitude and subjectivity; the sense of company in history and the greater world; the human mystery simultaneously illuminated and deepened…a look into the depth of the human other," is also, in part, what we seek in literature. But what By Nightfall lacks is precisely that "sense of company in history and the greater world"—which The Hours achieved so exquisitely by interlacing Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway with a contemporary story about AIDS, love, and grief that transcended its characters and resulted in stunning insights into this mortal coil.

 

Cunningham's new novel, in contrast, despite its attempts to grapple with questions about the role of beauty and love in our lives, fails to strike a universal note. It remains 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. In describing an art dealer who keeps finding artists whose work he likes well enough but "doesn't adore…wouldn't reach into a fire for," Cunningham unfortunately pinpoints how we feel about By Nightfall.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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