Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Review: By Nightfall

I love Michael Cunningham. I thought The Hours was genius, even enjoyed his rough first stab at writing with A Home at the End of the World, but my all-time favorite was Flesh and Blood.

Unfortunately, By Nightfall was missing the essential connection to the characters that made those books so great. Peter is vapid and self-obsessed. He’s a wealthy, white man living in New York City and finding his pampered life just slightly underwhelming. I found myself hoping some huge catastrophe would befall him - not because I need fiction to be dramatic, but because he is so extremely privileged it would take an enormous tragedy to bring him down to earth, make him relatable.

The book is narrated by Peter- sometimes in third person, sometimes in second or first. The reader is in his head as he talks to himself about every mundane and superficial thing under the sun. He’s an art dealer, frustrated because he has yet to find an artist with real genius, someone that truly moves him and gives meaning to his life. When his wife’s much younger brother comes to stay with them, Peter views him as a mixture of his wife when she was in her twenties and his brother who died in his twenties. This leads Peter to question his sexuality and consider running away from his marriage, his job, and his life in New York.

Of course, Peter isn’t really in love with his brother-in-law; he just wants to break free of his life.

The little twist at the end was almost redeeming. Almost. This might have worked as a short story, trimming out the three-page description of an urn, the play-by-play of a dull work day, his constant self-conscious musings. And maybe we could have gotten a single description of his brother-in-law’s profile instead of - I don’t know - twenty?

There were good things here. His description of his long marriage, the intense love coupled with a desire for escape from it, the depiction of their lovemaking toward the beginning of the book, the honesty with which he recognizes his wife getting older. For me, this relationship was the most interesting part of the book. There was just so much else to slog through.

I wonder about the advice they give to writers to “write what you know.” Has Cunningham reached such a high level of success that all he knows are rich people, living in New York City, discussing art and whining about their not quite fulfilling lives? I’m getting really tired of literary fiction that is a slight variation on this same theme.

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