'By Nightfall': Michael Cunningham's story of beauty's power to transfix and delude
A review of Michael Cunningham's new novel, "By Nightfall," a beautifully told tale of a trendy Soho art-gallery owner's midlife crisis, set against the backdrop of New York's contemporary fine-arts scene. Cunningham will read from his book Thursday, Oct. 14, at Town Hall Seattle and at noon Friday, Oct. 15, at the Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Michael CunninghamThe author of "By Nightfall" will read from his book at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are free with purchase of the book from the University Book Store; otherwise tickets are $5. Visit www.ubookstore.com or call 206-634-3400 for more information.
Cunningham will also read at 12:15 p.m. Friday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 Tenth Ave; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
by Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 238 pp., $25
Midlife crises come in all shapes and sizes. And for Peter, the 40-ish owner of a trendy SoHo art gallery and focal point of Michael Cunningham's new novel, a crisis arrives in the corporeal form of an exquisite young man — who, not coincidentally, is Peter's brother-in-law.
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.
At first, "By Nightfall" is a rather slight, cool treatment of these motifs. It is not until midway through that the unlived life of the fretful, self-absorbed Manhattan narrator emerges as worthy of close examination. And once it does, the attentive reader is rewarded with a wise and exhilarating epiphany at the end.
In crystalline cut-glass prose, Cunningham leads us through Peter's professional world and his personal cosmos. With witty commentary (and critique), "By Nightfall" surveys the contemporary, concept-heavy art scene from the perspective of a man who has to massage wealthy private collectors as well as pounce on the latest trends and woo the hottest young artists — even when he doesn't much like them. (There are double-edged references for instance, to British artist Damien Hirst's controversial work of an actual 14-foot shark immersed in formaldehyde.)
In his work, Peter is constantly evaluating, choosing, hanging, hawking fine art. But he also views love at a remove, and in aesthetic terms. And the most beautiful objet d'art in his private life is his wife, Rebecca's, much younger brother, Mizzy. The besotted Peter likens him to a Greco-Roman statue, a "medieval bas relief," a Rodin and (most dangerously) to a young, unlined version of Rebecca.
Mizzy (a pointed nickname, short for "mistake") may be Peter's ideal paragon of enviable male beauty. But he's also an aimless, manipulative drug addict drifting toward self-destruction. And the attraction between the two men is both less and more than it first appears to be.
As Peter fantasizes an impetuous romantic escape from his settled life and 20-year marriage, self-examination becomes inevitable. Unresolved guilt and past regrets resurface — over his relationship with his estranged, college-dropout daughter, Bea; over the AIDS death of another beautiful young man, his brother, years before.
In lesser hands, Peter's comfortably affluent, male-menopausal angst might seem contrived, even trivial. But by the end of "By Nightfall" the poignant, universal aspects of his struggles as a father, a husband, a brother come to the fore.
At one point Peter hawks an expensive urn sculpture to a valued client. It's by a lauded artist he hopes to woo into his fold, a guy who deliberately scars attractive objects with profane graffiti to call into question what beauty is, and whether it can even exist in our world.
Cunningham's answer here is yes, but more in the heart of the beholder than in the eye.
Misha Berson is the theater critic
for The Seattle Times.
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