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By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

By Nightfall (2010)

by Michael Cunningham

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Showing 1-5 of 42 (next | show all)
This was an effortless read including art-world elements, erotic undertones, & the ludicrous and seductive appeal of a burgeoning infatuation with an addict - his wife's brother. For anyone who has desired someone so entirely 'off-limits', this story will grab you and pull you in.

The main character's primary relationships were not with his wife or estranged daughter - but were of his love for beauty, art and his never-ending search for the potential presence of genius. Using Starbucks to keep him on track during the work-day and 'blue pills' washed down with vodka to help him sleep at night, this metro-sexual insomniac's internal chatter was amusingly familiar.

I never expected this novel to end with the possibility of redemption, but I appreciated greatly how the author inter-wove the New York scene-scape into the story, transporting the reader effortlessly into a middle-aged man's life that was desperate to find something meaningful in his life.

A sentimentalist's book, this one plucks at the ordinary heart-strings of our modern lives. I recommend for a contemplative type who can appreciate the range of an infatuated, middle-aged, man drowning inside himself one privileged moment after the next. ( )
  rubymadden | Mar 22, 2014 |
Cunningham is such a talented writer, and willing to tackle the hidden rot in our society, the middle-of-the-night, can't-sleep questions. Five stars for prose, but I had a hard time caring deeply about the main character. I kept thinking about SPECIMEN DAYS, and missing those leaps of fiction. ( )
  EllenMeeropol | Apr 7, 2013 |
Wow! I just finished this book & had to write a review for any reader who, like me, may think of quitting before the end. Stick with this book! The plot and the protagonist may seem tired and even cliche at some points (another male mid-life crisis). Cunningham's prose is so lovely, though, that he makes even those lead weights float. Beyond the linguistic beauty, the novel's allusions to so many works of art, literature, music, surround the narrative with conceptual beauty. By the middle I started to realize that, more than a novel, this was a meditation on beauty itself, what it is, what it means, what we'd sacrifice to achieve it, or just be in its presence. In the last twenty pages the book becomes something powerful, something gorgeous and devastating and true. Just read this. ( )
  susanbooks | Apr 3, 2013 |
"It's your life, quite possibly your only one. Still you find yourself having a vodka at three a.m., waiting for your pill to kick in, with time ticking through you and your own ghost already wandering among your rooms." (pg. 21)

See that, there? Nobody writes like Michael Cunningham. Nobody. Which is what makes Michael Cunningham one of my favorite authors. (I loved The Hours, couldn't finish Specimen Days, and am breathless after By Nightfall which is going to linger with me for a long, long time.)

Let's get the fangirl shenanigans out of the way first and then I'll try to put some semblance of coherant thought into this review. This book? Is freaking amazing, people. Yeah, I'm going to be heaping praise of the most effusive kind on this one, which has earned a place on my best books of the year list. It is SO. DAMN. GOOD. (I was having a Facebook conversation of sorts with Cathy Marie Buchanan, author of The Day the Falls Stood Still and no slacker herself in the writing department, mind you - where we said that Cunningham makes this writing thing look so damn easy and the rest of us shouldn't even bother trying.)

Honestly, I don't even know where to start with this. First, there's the gorgeously flowing writing. Had this been my own copy, it would have been underlined up the wazoo because there are simply passages of beauty throughout this novel. And By Nightfall is, in fact, a novel about internal and external beauty and what happens to us when we feel that the beauty has gone out of our lives.

Peter Harris knows a little something about beauty. He's a 44 year old art dealer in New York City with a respectable client list and a slight case of insomnia, living in SoHo with his 41 year old wife Rebecca. Like many professional couples who have been married and have been parents for a number of years (21 of them), theirs has become a marriage (a life) of complacency, of routine and familiarity, of going through the everyday motions of jobs, of sex, of social obligations.

"He feels, as he sometimes does, as most people must, a presence in the room, what he can only think of as his and Rebecca's living ghosts, the amalgamation of their dreams and their breathing, their smells. He does not believe in ghosts, but he believes in ... something. Something viable, something living, that's surprised when he wakes at this hour, that's neither glad nor sorry to see him awake but that recognizes the fact, because it has been interrupted in its nocturnal, inchoate musings.") (pg. 122-123)

As the novel opens, Peter and Rebecca are anticipating a visit from Rebecca's much younger brother Ethan (known as Mizzy, because at 23 he is affectionately referred to as "the Mistake"). He's had some issues with drugs and is somewhat flighty, but there's something endearing about him. He resembles a younger Rebecca in some ways - and for Peter, who obviously senses that his best days are behind him (or perhaps numbered), Mizzy represents a youthfulness (and yes, a beauty) that he no longer has, if it was even his to begin with. He also serves as a poignant reminder to Peter of his brother Matthew, who died in his early 20s from what we understand to be AIDS but isn't mentioned by name in the novel.

This sounds all very superficial - and By Nightfall is nowhere near that. Trust me on this. There is so much packed into these 238 pages, and I am not doing justice to the plot, which takes place only over a few days. It is a plot that turns on a dime by shocking the reader with just five words toward the end of the novel. (The last 40 pages of this one had me on the edge of my seat.)

Through these exceptional characters (particularly Peter), By Nightfall is much more of a in-depth look at who we are as a person, and how we relate to each other, and the questions we ask ourselves in the middle of the night as we sense our life becoming not what we anticipated. The symbolism - my God, there's so much - and everything means something. I love when a book is chock full of symbolism, and this doesn't disappoint in that regard.

For example, one of Peter's wealthy clients isn't happy with a recent piece she purchased and Peter arranges for a replacement, which she loves - an urn adorned with "hieroglyphic" phrases, some foul and nasty (we can only speculate what they are for Cunningham doesn't say and ... well, he doesn't have to). The urn represents the unexpected - you wouldn't expect to see such a thing in a proper English garden - and also the theme that beauty is fleeting, that everything dies. Another of Peter's artists has an upcoming show in his gallery which features five regular people going about their everyday lives, one on the streets of Philadelphia. (A reference to the movie, I wondered?)

The setting and timeframe of the novel - post 9/11 New York City - is incredibly well done, as Cunningham lets his reader into the still present sense of mortality that lingers a decade after the terrorist attacks. I'm not a New Yorker, but Cunningham is and he captures the effect that this changed place has on its people.

"...it's almost impossible to maintain a sense of hubris when you live here, you're too constantly confronted by the rampant otherness of others; hubris is surely much more attainable when you've got a house and lawn and an Audi, when you understand that at the end of the world you'll get a second's more existence because the bomb won't be aimed at you, the shock wave will take you out but you're not anybody's main target, you've removed yourself from the kill zone, no one gets shot where you live, no one get stabbed by a random psychopath, the biggest threat to your personal, ongoing security is the possibility that the neighbor's son will break in and steal a few prescription bottles from your medicine cabinet." (pg. 131)

See what I mean with that writing there?

And then there's this:

"Maybe its not, in the end, the virtues of others that so wrenches our hearts as it is the sense of almost unbearably poignant recognition when we see them at their most base, in their sorrow and gluttony and foolishness. You need the virtues, too - some sort of virtues - but we don't care about Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina or Raskolnikov because they're good. We care about them because they're not admirable, because they're us, and because great writers have forgiven them for it." (pg. 119).

Peter Harris is us, because we have all been fools for love at one point in our lives, haven't we? We've all been in a relationship where someone gives us a reason for living, who makes us feel new and alive again when our souls have been dead or dying, who we would give up everything we have just to be with them. Michael Cunningham knows that feeling, captures it in this novel, and delivers it to his reader with extraordinary passion.
( )
  bettyandboo | Apr 2, 2013 |
Originally posted here.

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 happens 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, a mother-hen 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. ( )
  zeteticat | Apr 2, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 42 (next | show all)
Cunningham writes so well, and with such an economy of language, that he can call up the poet’s exact match. His dialogue is deft and fast. The pace of the writing is skilled — stretched or contracted at just the right time. And if some of the interventions on art are too long — well, too long for whom? For what? Good novels are novels that provoke us to argue with the writer, not just novels that make us feel magically, mysteriously at home. A novel in which everything is perfect is a waxwork. A novel that is alive is never perfect.
This is a pensive, elegant novel whose emotional reserves draw on the steady accretion of detail, cerebral rumination, and finely observed scenes plucked from the quotidian. But there's an air of implausibility to the machination and pacing of its thin plot, rescued only by Cunningham's crystalline prose and the novel's thematic precision and reach, which articulates the allure of beauty and its special power to make fools of us all.

Cunningham’s novel is a homage to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Mann’s protagonist, Gustav Von Aschenbach, is a renowned literary theorist and author. Like Peter Harris, Aschenbach is heterosexual, has been married for a long time and is also in the clutches of paralyzing doubt about his life’s achievement...With By Nightfall, Cunningham deliberately glances back toward Mann’s stylistic austerity and subject matter to evoke a kind of autumnal despair. Here is decay, mortality, the longing for youth and beauty; here is what happens when one denies passion, goes quietly into that good nightfall. Here is what happens when one acquiesces to old age, rather than raging against it. But Cunningham also allows for another very real truth: It is absurd to rail against it. The impressive feat of his novel is that it convincingly holds both positions at once.


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Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
This book is for Gail Hochman and Jonathan Galassi
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The Mistake is coming to stay for a while.
The next couple of hours at the gallery are taken up with what Peter and Rebecca have come to call the Ten Thousand Things (as in, over the phone, "What are you doing?" "Oh, you know, the Ten Thousand Things"), their shorthand for the ongoing avalanche of e-mails and phone calls and meetings, their way of conveying to each other that they're busy but you don't want to know the particulars, they don't even interest me.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374299080, Hardcover)

Peter and Rebecca Harris: mid-forties denizens of Manhattan’s SoHo, nearing the apogee of committed careers in the arts—he a dealer, she an editor. With a spacious loft, a college-age daughter in Boston, and lively friends, they are admirable, enviable contemporary urbanites with every reason, it seems, to be happy. Then Rebecca’s much younger look-alike brother, Ethan (known in thefamily as Mizzy, “the mistake”), shows up for a visit. A beautiful, beguiling twenty-three-year-old with a history of drug problems, Mizzy is wayward, at loose ends, looking for direction. And in his presence, Peter finds himself questioning his artists, their work, his career—the entire world he has so carefully constructed.

Like his legendary, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Hours, Michael Cunningham’s masterly new novel is a heartbreaking look at the way we live now. Full of shocks and aftershocks, it makes us think and feel deeply about the uses and meaning of beauty and the place of love in our lives.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:38:52 -0400)

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Peter and Rebecca Harris--mid-forties denizens of Manhattan's SoHo, he a dealer, she an editor--are admirable, enviable contemporary urbanites with every reason, it seems, to be happy. Then Rebecca's much younger look-alike brother, Ethan (known in the family as Mizzy, "the mistake"), shows up for a visit.… (more)

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