Book Review: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham


I have read all of Michael Cunningham’s fiction. I certainly don’t rank him as one of my favorite authors, but I do find his novels consistently interesting and well written. His earlier books are pretty standard family/relationship narratives. And I guess in many ways his more recent stuff is as well, but with decidedly more complex narratives that have a more conceptual, artistic bent. His big breakthrough novel was of course, The Hours which weaves together three narratives into one novel with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway as a unifying theme/element. And then Specimen Days which is more like three short novellas connected by Walt Whitman and the fact that each story has a man, a young boy, and a woman as the central characters. His latest novel, By Nightfall, harks back to his earlier fiction in that the narrative is much more straightforward, but its setting, deep in the heart of artsiest NYC, makes it feel more like the more cerebral Hours and Specimen Days.
In By Nightfall, 43-year old art dealer Peter Harris is going through a bit of a midlife, mid-marriage, and mid-career crisis. Unfortunately, I had read a review or two of this book before I read it so a few of the plot twists were spoiled for me. I won’t do that to you here. I think this is a book that I would have preferred had not been spoiled. Being about the same age as Peter, there were many moments in the book where I could quite understand his emotions (or lack thereof). Those moments where, no matter how much you know, how sophisticated you are, and how well you think you have things figured out, there are still things in life that leave you confused. Whole swathes of life and love where you are dangerously naive. And as with poor, dear Peter, there are still those moments when life can take you to your most vulnerable and then kick you right in the gut, and hard.
Some have complained that the milieu that Cunningham creates in this book–the world of contemporary art in New York City–feels like Cunningham is trying to show off. Dropping too many names and too many inside references. But I actually think that that uber-sophisticated world, with all of its high artistic and poetic ideals, is a perfect metaphor for the tumult in Peter’s head.
So much of art, whatever the media, is filled with ideas and ideals that make no sense in real life. People don’t really die of broken hearts, but look at how much music would have you think so. People don’t often sacrifice their whole lives for another person or a high minded ideal, but just think of how many novels or poems would have you think so. And how many of us in our day-to-day lives feel the elation or the despair that so many painters capture on canvas? Not many of us could really say that these kinds of artistic fictions are the basis for our lives, but I think most of us can point to when they were true for a minute, for an hour, for a month, at least in our heads. And so it goes with Peter. All of the tragedy and joy of art is about to explode in his real life. He himself wonders if it can really be that way.

And then the flip side of setting Peter in this world is the contrast of perfection and high ideals with the baser side of human experience and emotion. Sometimes something beautiful comes out of something messy and ugly. And sometimes there is nothing seemingly profound in art at all–it is born out of base sexuality, greed, or vanity. But even those can create something that transcends the sum of their parts.

I am not saying this is a brilliantly written, perfectly wrought novel. There are more than a few themes that didn’t really pull together for me. But it did at times tap into something very emotional for me. And anyone who can get me to see Damien Hirst’s ridiculous shark in a tank in a new light is doing something worth looking into.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

  1. Paperback Reader December 17, 2010 / 2:42 pm

    I still haven't read Specimen Days but I am itching for By Nightfall to be published in the UK. I was not aware of the art milieu but it sounds interesting, nonetheless.


  2. Thomas at My Porch December 18, 2010 / 2:32 am

    Claire: I had a hard time getting into Specimen Days but once I did I really ended up liking it. Definitely one I could read again.


  3. Frances December 18, 2010 / 11:44 am

    Well said. I read this very quickly, enjoying it but have not posted about it as yet because I cannot decide if certain things are necessarily fault or just compound feelings of discomfort in a reader and are therefore clever authorial executions.

    One of the things that struck me most is how articulate and connected the protagonist is in his own head, his interior monologues, and then how inept he was at actually expressing these insights. Came out occasionally as monosyllabic, whiny sludge. And then the parts where we are to assume that he does express himself well, we are not privy to. They exist as just the “told all” markers in at least two instances. Hmmm, hmmm and hmmm.


  4. Ash December 18, 2010 / 4:25 pm

    I have yet to read anything by Michael Cunningham, but I have The Hours and I've been meaning to read it for awhile. Sounds like this was fairly ordinary, did you like The Hours more?


  5. StuckInABook December 18, 2010 / 6:32 pm

    I love The Hours, which I've read twice, but I've never read anything else by Cunningham. This does sound intriguing, although the bit you mention about contemporary art and some people thinking it is too name-droppy… that's the kind of thing I don't like and am sensitive to… hmm… maybe I'd cope!


  6. C.B. James December 19, 2010 / 10:05 am

    I have also read all of Michael Cunningham's books. I think you liked this one more than I did, but I did find things to admire in it. I thought his portrayal of the art world made the book worth reading. All the wheeling and dealing, the inside angle on creation and sale of art, made for interesting reading.

    But I did have other issues with the book and would not rank it among his best. I like the generational family drama in his first two novels, myself.


  7. Thomas at My Porch December 19, 2010 / 11:47 pm

    Frances: The final “told all” marker certainly leaves a lot up to the reader.

    Ash: I prefer his earlier novels over both of them.

    Simon: It would probably make you crazy for the reasons you state.

    CB: I agree with you. I appreciate the earlier stuff too.


  8. Melissa July 16, 2011 / 12:42 am

    Great review … I absolutely loved this one (a bit moreso than you, I'm thinking ;) but your third-to-last paragraph in this post is absolutely perfect. I'm going to link to this in my review.

    This one gave me so very much to think about. The narrative (I loved how we got so much of what Peter was thinking) and the symbolism of so many elements in the book was just perfect. I didn't mind the name-dropping aspect of the novel at all – maybe because I don't know art, so it didn't feel like that to me. Instead, it made the novel all that much more real and authentic.


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