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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