Michael Cunningham is renowned for a spare prose style that is very much in evidence in “By Nightfall”, but this book is notable for much more than its style.
As much scattered with esoteric literary and artistic references – from the “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” of Joyce’s “Ulysses” to sexual desire in Thomas Mann’s novels; Bruegel’s “Fall of Icarus” to Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” – as it is saturated with the minutiae of everyday life and emotion, and the world’s current economic climate.
The story follows the tribulations of Peter and Rebecca Harris – an art dealer and an editor – who have been married for 20-odd years. Rebecca’s troubled and much-younger brother, Ethan (aka Mizzy) comes to stay with them, and when Peter accidentally sees Mizzy naked in the shower, mistaking him for Rebecca through the steam of the bathroom, the mid-life crisis that has been niggling at him throughout the book is given an injection of sexually-led pace.
Peter’s obsession with Mizzy and his sexuality slowly build (I won’t reveal details for fear of ruining anybody’s reading) to a crescendo near the end of the book, but the real story here is three people going through crises while the world goes through its own crisis around them.
Mizzy is one of life’s wanderers: a perpetual quitter with no specific goal in life and an on-off drug habit to cope with. Now in his early 20s, the realisation of his adulthood casts him into the first real crisis of his carefree life.
Meanwhile, Rebecca’s magazine is on the edge of bankruptcy and is only able to survive by allowing a morally questionable takeover. Thrown on top of her job fears is her shaky relationship with Peter, which often leads to tense face-offs in taxis home from parties or in bed either side of sleep.
Another major thread of the book is the world recession, and how affluent people like Peter and Rebecca rarely feel sincerely guilty about living a life beyond the means of so many other Americans. Living in something of a bubble, unaffected by the recession – Peter sells a bronze urn covered in obscenities to an art collector for an unstated but no doubt obscene amount of money — the couple only really come into contact with the fears of the masses when Rebecca’s job briefly looks like it could be uncertain.
Peter occasionally remarks that he doesn’t like to look like he’s dressing to smartly, and he tries to take trains rather than cabs to see clients – not because he’s financially obliged to, but because he doesn’t want to make the wrong impression on impoverished artists whose work he wants to sell.
All of the crises bubble on as the book ends, just as the financial crisis we’re all facing in 2011 hasn’t reached a conclusion yet. Big things happen to all the main characters in this book, all of their worlds are shifted by events within the pages of the novel, but Cunningham takes Peter, Rebecca and Mizzy from us before we can see where their crisis-hit lives will lead them.
It sounds complex, and it is in a way; the relationships are carefully interwoven, but so beautifully observed and described that we are never in any doubt as to the ebb and flow of emotion between these people as they work, eat, sleep, talk and make love. If you’re looking for page-turning plot this is probably not your bag, but it’s endlessly gripping because it leads us to sympathise with these people’s hunger and yearning for something beyond the superficiality of their insulated daily routine. Yes, they’re cushioned by money, even privilege – but their lives are neither safe nor satisfying. Death and disease lurk around every corner; a friend bravely dying of breast cancer, a boy teetering on the edge of an overdose, the gnawing pain in Peter’s stomach which might be serious but serves to express his existentialist angst. Add to that Peter’s barely stated suspicion that being an art dealer is no different from being a drug dealer, that he sells fake dreams to keep the money-go-round spinning, and you have the kind of problems that we can all recognise, whatever our occupation.
One telling line is, “The worst thing you can imagine is probably the life you are living right now.” What is life for those who have everything but are (another line) “no longer the heroes” of our own lives.
An eloquent book, and one absolutely drenched in the upheaval of the early 21st century. It’s destined for university reading lists of twenty or thirty years’ time, and it’s very possibly “The Great Gatsby” of this century.