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By Nightfall: A Novel Paperback – August 30, 2011
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“The novel is less a snapshot of the way we live now than a consideration of the timeless consolations of love and art in the shadow of death, and its resolution--inevitable yet startling, like the slap of a wave--is a triumph.” ―The New Yorker
“Rather witty and a little outrageous . . . for pure, elegant, efficient beauty, Cunningham is astounding. He's developed this captivating narrative voice that mingles his own sharp commentary with Peter's mock-heroic despair. Half Henry James, half James Joyce, but all Cunningham, it's an irresistible performance, cerebral and campy, marked by stabbing moments of self-doubt immediately undercut by theatrical asides and humorous quips. . . a cerebral, quirky reflection on the allure of phantom ideals and even, ultimately, on what a traditional marriage needs to survive.” ―Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“[Cunningham] makes you turn the pages. He tells a story here, but not too much a story. You aren't deadened by detail; you're eager to know what happens next.” ―Jeanette Winterson, The New York Times Book Review
“Where art and humanity converge and where they part form a double helix in By Nightfall and account for the novel's most considered and lovely prose. Cunningham's observations of our desperate search for the real fill and break the heart.” ―Ellen Kanner, Miami Herald
“So many of Cunningham's physical descriptions read like confident prose poems, where you imagine what's left between the lines . . . As a testament to the richness of the literary imagination, ‘By Nightfall' is a success. You can't read this novel without the sense of how worlds can be found in a drop of water, or in an offhand comment, or in the curve of a vase. . . ‘By Nightfall' is a meditation on beauty, and it has its own indelible qualities of beauty.” ―Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe
“Beauty, in its infinite variety and its power to transfix and seduce and delude, is a central theme of ‘By Nightfall,' the latest from the author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel ‘The Hours.' Add the mysteries and fears of aging and mortality to the agenda, and you have echoes here of Oscar Wilde and Thomas Mann . . . the attentive reader is rewarded with a wise and exhilarating epiphany at the end.” ―Misha Berson, The Seattle Times
“Cunningham can really write. And so he transforms a set of predictable elements into an unpredictable and engrossing read. ‘By Nightfall' is an exemplar of the crossover megahit that authors of all genders and genres dream of: an entertaining page-turner that's bound for, and deserving of, literary eternity . . . There's nothing minor about Cunningham's heart, or his talent. ‘By Nightfall' deserves every superlative it has summoned.” ―Meredith Maran, San Francisco Chronicle
“[Cunningham's] vigorous explorations of art and its meaning--along with a thick veil of eroticism--keep the pages turning.” ―Eric Liebetrau, People
“Cunningham has again pulled off his trick of combining the novel of ideas with the juicy read. The characters in ‘By Nightfall' deceive, spy on and gossip about one another; but while all that is going on, ‘Nightfall' also studies the concepts of beauty and genius as they are expressed in the contemporary art world . . . The verdict: ‘By Nightfall' is a delicious book and will make a fine movie, as did ‘The Hours' and ‘A Home at the End of the World.' A straight man who suddenly falls for his wife's brother may seem like a stretch for mass appeal--but then didn't Mrs. Dalloway?” ―Marion Winik, Newsday
“In this rueful, daring and expansive novel, Cunningham gives us deep and thrilling access to the mind and heart of a searching, cynical, self-deprecating-except-when-he's-self-aggrandizing modern male.” ―Pam Houston, More
“There are sentences here so powerfully precise and beautiful that they almost hover above the page.” ―Karen Valby, Entertainment Weekly
“Beautifully written. . . Cunningham manages to perfectly capture post-9/11 New York City, with keen observations about anxiety, fidelity, aging, the art world and the somewhat impossible pursuit of what we think of as happiness.” ―Very Short List
“A ravishing and witty tale of yearning and hubris.” ―Donna Seaman, The Kansas City Star
“The result is an exquisite, slyly witty, warmly philosophical, and urbanely eviscerating tale of the mysteries of beauty and desire, art and delusion, age and love.” ―Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
“Michael Cunningham's newest novel, ‘By Nightfall,' is a slim book that takes on some big issues: the evolving relationship of long-married couples, the often-fraught bond between parents and their adult children, the duty siblings have to one another. But it also enlarges to consider the role that beauty plays in our lives and the necessarily one-sided nature of our relationship with it. ‘By Nightfall' is philosophy masquerading as a story.. . . Instead of a novel overflowing with flesh and sweat, rage and craziness, Cunningham has given us a well-considered treatise.” ―Nancy Connors, The Plain Dealer
About the Author
Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours won both the Pulitzer Prize and a PEN/Faulkner Award, and became an Academy Award–winning film, starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep. An earlier novel, A Home at the End of the World, was recently made into a film, starring Colin Farrell, Dallas Roberts, Sissy Spacek, and Robin Wright Penn. He lives in New York.
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The arrival of this young would-be hero is prefigured when Peter surprises himself, halting in his tracks in the Metropolitan Museum before a statue he's seen so many times: Rodin's sculpture of Auguste Neyt, "his form preserved, nude, unidealized, merely young and healthy, with his life ahead of him." Only pages later, Peter comes home to find his wife in the bathroom, "the shower sluicing away the last twenty years, a girl again." It is, of course, Mizzy. With good looks to spare, Mizzy is himself like a work of art, "an idealized, sculpted warrior"; "youth personified, the sense of a young hero who in life was probably not so beautiful and quite possibly not that heroic." So what Mizzy presents to Peter is twofold: as a younger, somewhat androgynous version of Rebecca, he recalls long-lost youth; as a vibrant, Mercury-like sculpture, he offers the passion that is missing from the art Peter sells. Mizzy's attractiveness is much less a beacon of lust than it is a reflection of departed opportunity.
This is a lean novel, and an immaculately crafted one. While some readers apparently feel there's not much of a plot, I was struck by a different view: although not much seemed to be "happening" while I was reading its 200+ pages, after I finished, I realized that far more had happened than what I would usually expect from such a compact novel. We seem to be camped out in Peter's rather ordinary, self-absorbed mind while his not-so-ordinary world is humming along, with or without him. (And the descriptions of the life of the art dealer, trailing him from Bushwick, Brooklyn, to Greenwich, Connecticut, were, to me, a fascinating revelation.) Nearly every sentence, every passage is the measured piece of art that a dealer like Peter could only hope to find engraved on the side of a bronze urn.
Which makes it even more remarkable that there's actually a "deleted scene" available to readers: last year, when the novel was still called "Olympia," Cunningham published an early version of the chapter "Fratricide" in the debut issue of "Electric Literature." Its final scene describes Peter years earlier, when his brother had died; he is washing the body in the hospital, with the help of a boyfriend he had only just met. The passage was omitted, perhaps, because it's not essential to the short, focused novel we have here; nevertheless, it's a B-side that surpasses in power and eloquence the best writing of most other novelists, and Cunningham's fans would do well to seek it out.
Wang manufactures from these videos items that are the trappings and miscellany of people's everyday lives: T-shirts, lunch boxes, key rings, bobble-head action figures of the video subject and even a kid's Halloween costume meant to replicate the person. These objects accompany the video and make up a very Warhol-like installation in Peter Harris' SoHo art gallery.
The installations are meant to elevate the commonplace to the level of art and therefore create from what is ordinary something beautiful and pure.
The nature of art and beauty and the beauty to be found in art and in our everyday lives becomes the heartbeat of Cunningham's story.
The author obviously is working hard to turn out beautiful prose. He hits some lyrical notes: "Beauty - the beauty Peter craves - is this, then: a human bundle of accidental grace and doom and hope."
Some sentences are simply overwrought: "If you were lank-haired, pustule-plagued Pete Harris you felt like you were always about to expire . . . the eternal certainty of the faithful that flamboyance and the macabre are not just threatening but - worse - uninteresting."
Peter Harris is Cunningham's principle character, a successful art dealer in mid-life who, with his wife Rebecca, has settled into a big, expensive loft and has all the trappings and ennui that accompany money and success in Cunningham's Manhattan.
Rebecca's younger brother "Mizzy" (for The Mistake) a beautiful young doper skating on the surface of life while be provided for with family adoration and money, takes up refuge in Peter and Rebecca's loft and disrupts the fragile balance in their life by becoming the object of Harris' desire.
Harris looks at Mizzy and thinks of a Rodin bronze, "the slender, effortless muscularity of youth, the extravagant nonchalance of it; that sense that beauty is in fact the natural human condition and not the rarest of mutations."
The story has Harris look back and question the choices he's made and muse whether there is still opportunity to capture and reinvent the past. There's an erotic charge in the room whenever Mizzy is present, usually in one or another stage of undress. It's the same heightened eroticism to be found in fashion designer Tom Ford's 2009 film of Christopher Isherwood's "Single Man."
"By Nightfall" is a novel of introspection. It is either mildly tedious or engaging depending on your sensibility and tolerance for angst. There are many direct and oblique references to "The Great Gatsby." Cunningham seems to be reaching for something classic.
Standing before Wang's installation the night before the exhibit opens Harris thinks: "This may not be great art but it's perfectly good art and he is consoled by it, he is accompanied by it and it will never feel as immaculate as it does tonight." "By Nightfall" isn't a great book, as it appears the author hoped, but it is "perfectly good art" with true insights about the nature and role of beauty in everyone's life.