Sunday, September 26, 2010

Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall

Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall got off to a rough start for this reader. I don’t mean to sound like a snarky nitpicker, but my first minutes of reading hit two irritants:

Page One, Problem One: Gimmicky Nickname. The first line of By Nightfall is: “The Mistake is coming to stay for a while.” The second line is: “‘Are you mad about Mizzy?’ Rebecca says.”

The Mistake (Mizzy) has a real name – Ethan – and he’s Rebecca’s younger brother. Sure, he’s a problem adult-child – he’s been in rehab for drugs and has no career – who was born late in his parents’ lives. Maybe I’m the one with “issues.” And maybe I should transfer my dislike for the name on to Rebecca not Cunningham, but the nickname felt a little gimmicky and cheap to use in the book’s first lines.

Page Two, Problem Two: Use of Earwormy & Awful ‘70s Song Lyrics. I don’t like Styx and have never liked Styx, so the two lines from a Styx song that go through the head of Peter, Rebecca’s husband, on the second page of the book nearly gave me as queasy a stomach as Peter has when the lyrics churn. I’d feel sick, too, if I were remembering that in a NY cab! The Styx lyrics felt cheap and easy, too, like shorthand for a corner of Peter’s taste and generation (he’s about my age). Or maybe Styx is an indication that the reader is about to enter a banality-filled version of Hell? (To reveal the song, click here.)

Despite that traumatic start, I finished reading the book. Though I thought some passages were good, it’s probably obvious that By Nightfall isn’t a favorite. By Nightfall is, essentially, a book about midlife (a.k.a. existential) crisis. Peter, the ill-at-ease taxi passenger remembering Styx, is a New York City art dealer who questions his work, marriage, and life purpose, and remembers his brother Matthew, who died of AIDS. Peter’s wife, Rebecca, edits an art journal. Ethan is Rebecca’s wayward and good-looking brother; he comes to visit because he thinks he might want to work in art, too. I think it’s safe to say that aesthetics and brands are important to Peter and Rebecca. Oh, and their daughter Bea has “issues” with Peter, which makes Peter feel guilty.

By Nightfall is the kind of book that made me want to yell “Get over yourself!” at the characters. I have no problem with unappealing characters – this week’s book on Lizok’s Bookshelf is narrated by a manipulative woman who’s more unpleasant than the introspective Peter – but I don’t enjoy spending time with them if their creators don’t let them show me anything new. And that’s the problem with By Nightfall: there’s not much freshness or conflict until the final quarter or third of the book, when Ethan’s visit becomes a catalyst for Peter to (re)consider his life and relationships. (I won’t reveal particulars…)

What’s most unfortunate is that much of the material near the end of the book is quite decent, leading me to think that By Nightfall could have been a very good short story or novella if most of the worn-out background details had come out. It was Ethan’s visit and his interactions with Peter that caught my interest, not all the endless, tired details of Peter’s work, art deals, or apartment. I love the outsider-wreaks-havoc-on-everyday-life model and wanted it to kick in many pages earlier.

My favorite lines in the book come from Ethan, who doesn’t sound like a mistake when he tells Peter that he, Ethan, is ordinary, not brilliant, exceptional, or spiritual. Ethan can accept that but he isn’t sure the people around him – his family, who always follow him into crisis – can. Maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part, but it seems that Peter comes to appreciate the beauty of ordinariness and imperfection at the end of the novel… rather like how one of his artists transforms regular people into superheroes.

For More: Sam Sacks’s not-very-favorable (and quite apt) review in The Wall Street Journal has spoilers and specifics. has a mixed but more favorable view, here, also with more details. I’m happy to leave discussion of the literary allusions to them… the allusions were painfully obvious in the book, though a little mysterious since I’ve read so little Mann and Joyce. For my part, Peter’s stomach and existential problems reminded me of Sartre’s Nausea, which I think is due for a reread.

Up Next: Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador, a genial novel about an Icelandic poet. He’s just arrived in Lithuania for a poetry festival…

Disclosure: I received a review copy of By Nightfall at the Farrar, Straus and Giroux booth at Book Expo America. Thank you!

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