After studying his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Hours in college, there was no doubt in my mind that Michael Cunningham is one of the America’s most brilliant living writers. Seamlessly weaving Virginia Woolf’s life and fiction with a story of his own creating, Cunningham’s novel is an intelligent and unsentimental woman-focused piece. Even more remarkable to me was the fact that The Hours was written by a man.
Cunningham’s most recent novel, By Nightfall is another thoughtfully crafted novel that astutely examines modern life, art, and family. Despite the rather elite station in life of Cunningham’s characters, this story deals with fairly universal human themes, including our desire for greatness, our ambivalence towards mortality, and our desperate human need to demonstrate some semblance of permanence.
Peter and Rebecca Harris are middle-aged New Yorkers, he a mid-level art dealer, she editor of a struggling cultural magazine. With Peter as our guide, Cunningham explores art, the world in which it is bought and sold, the constant struggle to discover level of creative genius that man may be unable to create but not unable to imagine. While Peter vacillates over whether to sign a recently dealer-less sculptor generating much buzz in the art world, he finds himself contemplating the very way in which he conducts his business. In Peter’s search for beauty (which he ultimately defines as “a human bundle of accidental grace and doom and hope”), he worries that selling art to an ever-dwindling population of buyers may not be his truest calling. But were he to go against his core morals by signing a highly coveted artist producing transient but expensive work, Peter would be better able to finance his continuous search for creative genius.
Peter and Rebecca’s marriage doesn’t escape examination, especially when Rebecca’s charming but flighty brother Ethan (referred to as Mizzy, short for “The Mistake”) comes to visit after his one-month pilgrimage to a Japanese holy site. Mizzy occupies the Harris’ daughter Bea’s room, infringing upon the quiet routine of the empty nesters’ thin-walled apartment and placing a strain upon their marriage by means of his drug use. Meanwhile the Harris’s young twenty-something daughter lives in Boston, a college drop-out who ardently supports herself without parental support by tending bar at a hotel. Bea’s false memories of her parents’ ineptitude complicates her relationship with both Peter and Rebecca, but is most troublesome for her father. Marriage, love, and family are the source of many complications in Peter’s life, including an inconvenient attraction to drug-addicted Mizzy and his inability to fully recover from his homosexual brother Matthew’s death some twenty years past. While Peter admires the ability of great works of art to exist in perpetuity, he struggles to deal with mortality regarding the untimely death of Matthew, a man that was so full of promise and talent.
Cunningham’s commentary on modern life rung harshly true at times, for Peter was predictably surprised by the ordinariness of his life and the lives of his family. It was quite ironic that I read By Nightfall in large part on the same day that I went to see Judd Apatow’s latest film “This is 40.” I couldn’t help but be reminded of much of what I saw in Apatow’s movie, which deals with family struggles, purity in art, finding meaning in the temporary nature of life, and middle-age on a more common level, while reading Cunningham’s book. But maybe this isn’t a case of irony at all. Maybe the coincidence of these two pieces of art (because I consider film an art form, no matter what genre), addressing comparable themes through different mediums at a common point in time speaks to a widespread need for consideration of these topics. Whether you choose to explore them through Cunningham’s sinuous novel or through Apatow’s lengthy but rewarding film, is up to you (though I would recommend checking out both).