By Nightfall begins with an animal sacrifice; a horse pulling a tourist carriage has been hit by a car on Broadway. For New Yorkers in a hurry the bloody spilled death of the horse is just another jag on their journey. For Peter Harris, caught in the traffic, caught in the stopped hour where life can’t move forward, the dead animal is a symbol of the losses, accidents, misdirections, mistakes, of his forty three years – he has just turned forty-four.
Middle-age isn’t anybody’s fault, and Peter has done better than most – a good marriage, an absorbing career, enough money, good friends – but here he is with the feeling of pulling his life along its recognised route, blinkered, tired, insomniac, waiting for something to hit him.
‘The Mistake is coming to stay for a while’. (P1)
Peter’s wife Rebecca has a twenty-three year old brother, Ethan, known as Mizzy, the Mistake, the late child of elderly parents who couldn’t possible conceive – his mother had had her tubes tied. (P44)
Mizzy is gorgeous, unreliable, a drug addict, a Yale drop-out, ‘one of those smart drifty young people…. who seems to imagine that youth and brains and willingness will simply summon an occupation, the precise and perfect nature of which will reveal itself in its own time.’ (P12)
Rebecca dotes on her little brother, and acts like a cross between his mother and his lover in the quintessentially female way of adoration that shoulders neglect, delight that is always disappointed, responsibility made out of love and guilt, (she has a troubled wayward daughter of her own), plus the financial burden of Mizzy’s carefree life. Michael Cunningham is so good at showing the complexity of feeling aroused by Mizzy’s refusal of responsibility; feelings of envy and admiration – why are the rest of us so conscientious, so well- behaved? And feelings of frustration and anger – as Peter notes towards the end of the novel, thinking of his wife, and gazing at the beautiful boy who has crashed through both their lives, ‘Does she know that among your compelling qualities you’re cheap and at least a little bit hollow?’ (P220)
Cunningham has taken the classic plot of the uninvited/unexpected stranger or guest whose presence in town brings chaos, self-knowledge, tragedy, the ruin of one kind of life that may or may not start something better. It is a story we all know from variants as classic as Shakespeare’s Othello, through Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, to contemporary versions such as Ali Smith’s The Accidental.
Cunningham always uses simple, potent, ready-made plots, (think of the triptych in The Hours), saving his energy for the hearts and minds, groins and guts, of his characters. Yet he makes you turn the pages. He tells a story, but not too much of one. We aren’t deadened by detail but we want to know what happens next.
He writes so well, and with an economy of language where less really is more. He doesn’t need to over-write because he can call up the poet’s exact match. His dialogue is deft and fast. The pace of the writing is skilled – stretched or contracted at will – and if some of the interventions on art are too long, well, too long for whom, for what? Good novels are places where we can get irritated and argue with the writer, as well as places where we are magically mysteriously at home. A novel where everything is ‘perfect’ is just a waxwork. A novel that is alive is never perfect.
By Nightfall is an interior novel that knows how to externalise its agonies. We are inside a man’s head looking out at his life – which seems to me more satisfying than using events to let us look in. It’s not only that we understand Peter or sympathise with him; we become him. We know, in part, what is going to happen, in the fateful fearful way we know about ourselves once we have started down a particular road – and the particular road here is desire.
Peter is an art dealer- he buys and sells because he is hunting the beautiful – finding in beauty a Keats-like authenticity that beauty is truth. Much of modern art is deliberately un-beautiful, and Peter wrestles with that, not afraid of magnificent arrogant ugliness – because that has a beauty of its own – but running from the petty and the banal. His own life, it seems to him, has become petty and banal.
The living sculpture that is Mizzy, looking as though he should be a Rodin bronze, does to Peter what beauty does to all of us, regardless of sex or sexuality – we want to touch it.
Coming home from a sad meeting with a friend who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Peter hears the shower running. He walks into the bathroom and through the steam, there’s his wife as she was twenty years ago, taut, youthful, sexy. He is taken aback, moved, aroused.
The body, of course, is Mizzy’s, in one of those gender-swap confusions so common in Shakespeare – think Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night, or Rosalind in As You Like It, where a boy who’s a girl who’s a girl who’s a boy spins the plot into sexual confusion, neatly tidied by Act Five, (believe that and you’ll believe anything).
The gender–bend is signalled early from a couple of glimpses of Death in Venice, not heavy-handed, because Cunningham never is, but referenced in the terror of ageing, the search for youth, not as some fatuous fantasy, but as an ideal that youth seems to offer in its freedom and promise – its casual unstudied beauty. The lure of Tadzio, cleaner than the lure of Lolita, is less about sex than it is about longing.
Inevitably, later, Peter lets Mizzy kiss him. (P192)
Not inevitable, and surprising, is how Cunningham arranges the conclusion. There is another sacrifice – a human one this time – because if we want to grow up – as opposed to just get older – there are things about ourselves that must be let go. I don’t want to give away the ending but I do want to say that Cunningham is a compassionate writer. This should not be confused with sentimental.
By Nightfall is tough on Peter Rebecca and Mizzy. I am not sure that I like any of them, partly because the writing exposes all the painful vanities we prefer to keep covered up – like the important painting Peter never unwraps that turns out to be a daub.
Yet when Mizzy rips the wrapper of their lives what is inside is not, after all, a second-rate fake. Peter comes to understand that it is not just his artists who have to find a way of making it new, but himself, Rebecca, the ordinary people in the ordinary world. The work that is the life has to be done again and again.
All of us find ourselves here, after a certain age, and if it’s not to be a tragedy, and we rule out the static happy ending, what are we left with? Forgiveness, says the novel, ‘He begins to tell her everything that has happened.’ ( P238)