October 27, 2010

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

I adore Michael Cunningham. He’s one of those writers who, when I hear he has a new book out, I immediately pre-order. I love coming across video and audio interviews ~ his voice is so smooth and confidential and precise.

I was immediately pulled into the world of By Nightfall. It reminded me of Ian McEwan’s Saturday ~ a slow inexorable pace of the plot deliciously filled out by digressions and musings and the past and the future. I think I read one reviewer say that there was no plot but we don’t mind ~ I know the reviewer meant that as a compliment, maybe because literary writers eschew plot, but I didn’t think that at all. I thought it had a plot ~ a meaningful arrangement of events that pulls the narrative forward. Granted, a majority of the events were internal, but I thought it had plot. Maybe the reviewer was thinking plot was simply external events. This is one of the many reasons why By Nightfall is so enjoyable: it has forward momentum at the same time as we are fully immersed in Peter Harris’s head.

I won’t summarize what happens for you. Feel free to read the wonderful New York Times Review. Jeannette Winterson does such a fabulous job (of course).

When I’m reading a book and I come across a sentence that is so precise and surprising and well said and original, I dog-ear a page, and I found myself with the urge to dog-ear pages throughout, as I always do with Michael’s work. Here are a few of those sentences:

We ~ we men ~ are the frightened ones, the blundering and nervous ones; if we act the skeptic or the bully sometimes it’s because we suspect we’re wrong in some deep incalculable way that women are not.
A few feet away is that rarest of entities ~ another being who believes himself to be alone.
She is radiant in her sorrow, gauntly fabulous, present in all her particulars, in the broad, pale expanse of her forehead and the Athena-like jut of her brows, in the gray livingness of her eyes, the firm line of her decisive mouth, the prominent bulb of her almost-masculine chin. She is here, right here; she looks exactly like this. She is no failed copy of her younger self. She is herself, exactly that, rapt and ravaged-looking, incomparable, singular.

I could go on and on.

I love Peter, the point of view character. His intuition and how he senses the nuances and depths of his friends and enemies. His prescience. How he is so self-deprecating yet blind to himself. His strengths (loyalty, devotion to an ideal, passion) and his weaknesses (narrow-mindedness, selfishness, romanticism). I love him for his humanness.

The book is a long mediation on and search for the nature of beauty. Peter is an art dealer, and he is constantly seeing the beauty and the ugliness of the world. He sees it in the art he buys and sells. He sees it in the world around him. He sees it in his friends, and he particularly sees it in his wife’s younger brother Ethan. This aspect of the novel is going to keep me thinking for months and will keep returning, I’m sure. In fact, I think I’ll probably soon reread this (something I rarely do) just to think about this aspect. Beauty, Peter seems to be saying (at least through most of the book), is craft and proportion and youth and integrity and authenticity. But at the end, everything turns on its head ~ more about this in a minute.

I love Michael’s use of doubles. It’s metaphors on all levels. Peter draws our attention on a literal level to this: Ethan is like Peter’s wife who is like Peter’s brother who is like a girl Peter fantasized about when he was young. This is also present on so many other, less-explicit levels and in small gestures to other extratextual things. There is literally a large urn like John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and Ethan is Adonis-like. But the irony that really gives me the chills: Peter is on a quest for beauty, and Ethan was also on a quest for something larger, but Ethan’s quest is a failure. He gleans nothing from his travels. Ethan is also a younger Peter, with his self-regard and cruelty. It opens a whole side of Peter we don’t see explicitly.

A great segway to this: I was also very frustrated with the point of view character. Three-quarters the way through the book I wanted to strangle Peter. I wanted to tell him to quit being such a meta and just BE, for heavens sake. He’s always guessing and second guessing himself and others. He lives inside his head and is so critical of himself and all around him. He gets so embroiled that it felt like too much toward the end. In some ways, he is the critic in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” But then, the end! It changed it all. More on this in a minute.

One more thing that frustrated me about the point of view character. His narrow-mindedness about people he wants to other. For example, he essentializes people from Milwaukee and reduces them to caricatures in his mind. They have no sensitivity and they are dull and strivers and so many other clichés. Their subjectivity is denied and reduced to a few not-so-complementary qualities. He doesn’t grant them the complexity that he has, yet he himself grew up there and is ~ or was ~ them. Something we all do about where we grew up, I suppose.

Finally, the ending. Wow. The last 10 pages change everything. Now, you can’t just go and read them. You have to read what happens before to get the full impact. When I first read them, I went, “Wait! Where did this come from! This is out of left field and I wanted this fifty or a hundred pages ago!” But the more I thought about it, the more it was exactly how it should end, and actually it was happening throughout in very small ways. It was a catharsis, an eternal YAY!  It rocked my world.

I’ve gone on too long, but, needless to say, I loved it.

Questions of the Day: What books have rang your bell? You love and are frustrated with and inspire you to be a writer?

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