I don’t exactly disagree with this essay (reblogged below) about Michael Cunningham’s 2010 novel By Nightfall, but neither do I find it particularly exciting to use his work as a jumping off point for more musing on how “social networking really makes us more isolated” etc.
By Nightfall is certainly Cunningham’s worst novel (except for possibly Golden States which I haven’t read as it’s tricky to find) and I suppose it endorses his power as a writer that readers can infer so much from even his weaker material, but “the far-ranging honesty of a man’s unedited thoughts as he moves through his day, absorbing his inner admissions of dissatisfaction and failure, the unexpressed criticisms of others, the real but not always adorable thoughts of a loving husband” is the territory of most modern fiction of this sort. It is written better than most, because Cunningham is after all awesome, but there is no other reason to single this book out for seeing deeply into Modern Life.
Janet Fitch’s essay also mentions “the relentlessly desperate, narcissistic, or cynical thoughts displayed by self-conscious young characters in modern hipster novels” and I wish she had singled out examples. How about Jennifer Egan’s recent Pulitzer Prize winner, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which kind of sucks? Maybe it’s worth contrasting a “hipster novel” like that, which is very much dependent on social media? (Appropriately I would bet the social network profile [“likes” etc.] of a novel like Cunningham’s is quite low.)
So yeah, singling out By Nightfall as “A novel that centers on the life of the mind” seems a little disingenuous when that is the territory of so much fiction by and about middle-aged married white people. Especially when it’s not a great novel.
(But I did still enjoy catching the literary references he included. Janet I hope we r still kool.)
Image: A Short History of Modernist Painting (detail) © Mark Tansey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. 256 pp.
Ah, Middle Age. Ye despised state. So sadly and yet accurately coupled with such terms as spread, crazy and despair. Middle-age is the arena of Michael Cunningham’s new novel, By Nightfall, which follows a long-married, successful NYC art gallerist, Peter Harris, through a handful of days as he considers exploding his life for the sake of his wife Rebecca’s much younger brother. An “oops” child and a loose cannon (spiritual quests, drug problems), Ethan, known as Mizzy, arrives as a debris-rich injection into the well-run machine of a sophisticated couple’s intricate, busy life. First introduced as a family problem, the boy quickly becomes a very different type of problem for Peter — a troubling attraction.
While many have commented upon the Death in Venice resemblances — the echoes of which Cunningham’s well-read, wryly self-deprecating protagonist is highly aware — another specter hovers over the novel, one which I found far more resonant: the quintessence of middle-aged Urban Man, Ulysses’ Leopold Bloom. On the very first page, we’re alerted to the possibility of Ulyssean overtones with the mention of “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” in the stream of Peter’s consciousness — a psyche as packed with literary and artistic references as a New York City subway car full of rush-hour commuters.
Like Joyce’s protagonist, Peter Harris is a man caught midstream — not lost in dark woods, but a seasoned traveler tied into life by a million active strands. Imagine a sophisticated Bloom, a successful Bloom, going about his day, not in 1906 Dublin, but in contemporary New York. In the course of his daily rounds, Peter Harris, like Bloom, offers up startlingly apt insights into the nuances of his beloved city and life in middle age, its particular qualities, memories revisited, states and ambivalences. Like his Irish predecessor, Peter exists in his private musings far more than in any particular plotted action.
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