By Nightfall, By Michael Cunningham

Don't corner the boyfriend in this triangle

Reviewed,Katy Guest
Sunday 23 January 2011 01:00

If you were trying to convert your boyfriend to chick flicks, you probably wouldn't start him off with Stephen Daldry's adaptation of Michael Cunningham's 1998 novel, The Hours.

Likewise, if you were selling literary fiction to a sci-fi or chick-lit reader, Cunningham's books would be a bad place to start. His fiction is everything that serious literature-phobes hate: packed with arty types, cultural allusions and introspective monologues. To experiment successfully with fiction like this, an author needs to find the point at which the introspection goes too far. I'm afraid that By Nightfall might be that point.

Set in the Manhattan art world, the novel has many of the themes that Cunningham's fans relish. Peter Harris is a forty-something art dealer, father of an averagely screwed-up daughter and tolerably happy with his wife, Rebecca. Or at least, tolerably unhappy; but "What couple isn't unhappy, at least part of the time?" A beautiful, chapter-long flashback (a very Cunningham-esque trope, this) recalls a childhood holiday, when Peter watched his gay older brother knee-deep in a lake with a beautiful girl friend and experienced once and for all a defining moment of love and youth: "a pure, thrilling, and slightly terrifying apprehension of what he will later call beauty...." His brother later died of Aids – a loss with which Peter is tolerably obsessed.

An edgy triangle is set up from the outset (Cunningham loves threes), when Rebecca's feckless, drug-addicted younger brother comes to stay. His name is Ethan, but they call him Mizzy, short for "the Mistake". Peter interrupts Mizzy in the shower, having mistaken the steamy outline for his wife's, and from this point, events spiral somewhat unconvincingly out of control. Listening to Mizzy surreptitiously masturbating in the next room, Peter contemplates (introspectively): "Isn't this part of what you keep looking for in art – rescue from solitude and subjectivity; the sense of company in history and the greater world; the human mystery simultaneously illuminated and deepened ...." Well yes, either that or you're just an old perv.

So self-obsessed is Peter that he fails to notice that Mizzy is leading him a merry dance and his wife is bored miserable. There are subtle, tender moments here about art, ageing and disappointment, but they are nearly lost amid the navel-gazing. This is an interesting novel of ideas in many ways; but don't inflict it on your boyfriend.

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