By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

 This is a marvelously written novel from 2010. It captures cosmopolitan New York City, the modern, commercial art world, and the complexity of human relationships. It is the story of Peter Harris and his wife Rebecca, who are in their forties and who live for their professional life as much as they do for each other.

But for me this is also a very uncomfortable book.

Uncomfortable because its narrative revolves around a different kind of triangle. A triangle among Peter, Rebecca, and Rebecca’s young and handsome brother Mizzy. A triangle in which Peter sees in the male Mizzy a younger and beautiful version of the wife he once fell in love with. Now, he and Rebecca are both settled in their marriage, and here come Mizzy, whom Peter falls for, and envisions as a way out of his humdrum life as the owner of an art gallery always searching for beauty.

Cunningham himself is gay, and perhaps it was inevitable that in today’s changing culture, he would decide to tackle head-on a love relationship between two men. But even he still belongs to the old school, since their relationship does not reach a satisfying conclusion. It is even hinted that Mizzy seduced his brother-in-law in order to prevent him from revealing that he, Mizzy, has returned to a life of drugs.

But what Cunningham does establish is that Peter has fallen for Mizzy, can’t get him out of his mind, and dreams of abandoning his marriage and his career and then running off with him. But if Peter convinces himself he is in love, this reader is less convinced. Yes, Mizzy is a younger version of his wife, but Peter argues too much with himself, first whether he is gay, then whether he is in love, and finally whether he should run away with, of all people, his brother-in-law. The gradual recognition is too scripted. As also is Rebecca’s concern and support of a brother who is basically beautiful but irresponsible.

Whereupon, it seems that Mizzy may be the more sensible one, when he, not Peter, decides the outcome of their relationship. Peter’s deep introspection thus appears not to be worth the author’s effort, or is even beside the point. Which leaves a resolution that needs to be reached by Peter and Rebecca, and with which they are barely comfortable—and the reader even less. If Peter confesses, will he be forgiven? Will Rebecca change, just as he has changed, just as beauty keeps changing?

As one critic wrote: “The novel 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.”

Indeed, what makes this novel so vivid for me is its explorations of: the nature of beauty, the subjective evaluation of art, the commercial motives in the art world, the political intrigue among artists and galleries, and each artist’s need for recognition. The personal narrative drives the novel, yes, but it is a narrative that the reader easily anticipates. Indeed, one that this reader hoped would not occur, but which becomes too obvious when Mizzy is conveniently created as both beautiful and a younger version of the wife Peter fell in love with.

But, it is the depth of the art world that makes so real the penetration of these emotional lives. Peter is fascinated by beauty, is in search of it for his art gallery, yet cannot see the beauty in what is recognized today as art. This frustration is mirrored by his relationship with his wife, whose beauty has also disappeared. While she has become a person he is comfortable with, she is also a person who is as dissatisfied with her career as an editor as he is with the responsibilities of an art gallery. This mutual frustration is what makes this novel so interesting, especially as it is enriched by its exploration of artists, agents, managers, and curators in the art world.

Cunningham obviously saw how this dissatisfaction could be expanded into Peter’s emotional life, and into a new area of literary exploration, namely the origins of a gay relationship. And in his own terms, I am sure he felt that he succeeded. But not being a part of that life, I felt a certain manipulation in the way Peter confronts Mizzy. Such as when Mizzy is naked in the kitchen. Such as when Mizzy is naked in the shower. Because at that point you knew where the novel was headed, even with the reservations that Peter had in committing to a relationship that would overturn his comfortable world.

To sum up, Cunningham remains a magnificent novelist. But he reveals here perhaps the prejudice of a gay writer. That there is an element of being gay in all of us, and he wishes to show how easily it can surface in a man who has never confronted that possibility. Which means that behind the sensitive introspection of his characters, behind the rich portrait of the art world, Cunningham has an axe to grind. To show that being gay is a normal way of life for some, and that it is a legitimate subject for a work of literature. Even if this were true, however, I wish he had been more subtle in presenting his story. Especially, the brother being a younger stand-in for his wife.

Will I read more Cunningham? I certainly wish to, but I also know that my decision may be based in part on his future choice of subject matter. This may be considered as prejudice by some, but I do not see Peter’s story here as an exploration of a common human experience. For Lolita and Mann’s Tadzio, for example, the sex symbolized more an inner need than it did a means of escape. (August, 2013)

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Waiting for Sunrise, by William Boyd

Boyd wanted this book from 2012 to be a thriller, and in this he succeeds. However, thrillers require misdirection and coincidence, which are extensive here. And they are not a mark of literature. The result is a highly readable work but not as serious a work of fiction as are Boyd’s other works.

The story begins in Vienna, moves to London, then briefly to the World War I battlefront in France and to Geneva, and then finally returns to London. The hero is Lysander Rief, an actor, who travels to Vienna before the war to resolve a personal, psychological—well, sexual—problem. There, he encounters several characters who, during the war, will involve him in the search for a traitor who is revealing military secrets to the Germans. He is obliged to work with these British officials because earlier they had helped him escape from Viennese authorities after he had been falsely accused of rape.

The Vienna scenes are the most effective in the book, because we are not involved yet in an espionage work, but rather with the characters. The author is merely setting the foundation of what is to come. The battlefront scene is also effective, but brief. The remainder of the book, set around London, sacrifices a valid atmosphere for the sake of the espionage thriller, as Rief’s search and the reader’s suspicions shift from one character to another.

Boyd uses two methods to tell his tale. One is a straight third-person narrative. The other is a first person narrative in a journal Rief is keeping. It works within the book, because his Vienna psychiatrist has suggested it; but it is not clear to me why the author resorts to this different viewpoint. I can see it only as symbolic of the contrasting facets of the espionage world. That is, Rief is not sure of where truth, or where reality, lies in his mind as well as in this unique world of espionage.

At the end, Boyd chooses not to explain matters clearly, perhaps also consistent with the espionage world. He suggests but does not spell out the role of Rief’s mother, nor the role of the three military men who oversee his search for the traitor. We know in general what has happened, who the traitor is, but the details are not clear. Did the traitor mail the letters to himself about military details, and then code the content—just to suggest someone else was working over him? Why were his superiors so accepting of Rief’s initial misleading identity of the traitor? And why did they accept Rief’s final revelation, when his conclusion was more theory than proof?

Boyd apparently sought to give depth to his hero, by first giving him a sexual problem, and then by describing his interesting encounters with three women. One. Hettie. falsely accuses him of rape, and another, Florence, shoots him (in the most unbelievable surprise moment), while fellow actress Blanche beaks their engagement and then reconsiders. It is Hettie who is the most complex character, but that complexity seems somewhat forced. She becomes less real as her emotions change and she keeps contradicting herself.

The title comes from the climactic scene, in which Rief waits at dawn to encounter the actual traitor. Even there, however, Boyd deliberately confuses the reader, when Rief seem to be distracted by the first man he encounters. And like in many an espionage tale, Boyd has Rief turn a significant character, Rief’s uncle, into a surprise accomplice to help save him.

   To sum up, this is a fast-paced work that does not pretend to be literature. And so, it is a disappointment in terms of the author’s past work. But as a thriller, it earns high marks. Even if it is also overly complex. That is, while we are in suspense because we do not see where the action is headed, some of this suspense is achieved through deception, and through coincidence. Too much coincidence, in fact.

In addition, because the reader does not understand the perspectives, the motives, of the various characters around Rief—are they friends or enemies of England?—the characters themselves lack depth. Yes, it builds suspense, but it is a handicap in every thriller, and here we are uncertain about nearly all the major characters. About Rief’s mother, about Hattie, about the friendly woman spy who shoots him, and about the three military officers who are overseeing his search for the traitor. Only his uncle and his psychiatrist seem to be what they purport to be.

Perhaps the main handicap in terms of being literature is that Rief is continually trying to figure out where the other characters stand, where are their loyalties, and is his safety compromised by what he is doing with them. Whereas, to be literature, Rief should be concentrating on trying to figure himself out. Does he have psychological problems with women? Does he have mixed loyalties because he is half Austrian? Is he troubled by the ethics or morality of his assignment. Does he accept that any conduct is valid because he is acting under orders and it is for the security of his country?

I will continue reading Boyd, but do wonder what level of literature he wishes to achieve. This book seems to strive for popularity rather than consideration as serious art. It does have some texture, however: British bureaucracy, pre-War Vienna, and London society.

But it is the characters who should have the greatest texture, the greatest complexity—both in terms of the plot and in their own individual psychology. Hettie’s internal contradictions are not enough; and she is too obvious, in any event. On the other hand, the British officials appear to accept Rief’s explanation only because it is the most convenient. While Blanche resolves her situation with Rief too easily, a nd Rief’s own acting career doesn’t matter to me. (August, 2013)