Michael Cunningham’s fifth novel is a departure from his recent books, The Hours and Specimen Days, which drew on the work of Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman respectively for inspiration. By Nightfall tells the story of art dealer Peter and magazine editor Rebecca, a forty-something couple who work in the New York art scene, and of how their lives change when Mizzy (The Mistake), Rebecca’s beguiling, enigmatic brother, a recovering drug addict, comes to stay.
Peter first encounters Mizzy when he interrupts the young man showering, having mistaken him for Rebecca. This awkward scene is subtly written, and is made more effective by the contained brutality of the previous scene: a viewing of Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde. Later, in an episode that is almost farcical in its construction, Peter discovers that Mizzy has begun taking drugs again. His dilemma as to whether to tell Rebecca is complicated by his growing romantic fascination with Mizzy. So begins the cycle of deception and complicity upon which By Nightfall turns.
As the book progresses, Peter becomes increasingly disillusioned with his life, and the lack of beauty in it. He bemoans the art produced by those he represents, describing it as made of “string and tinfoil”. How can it be compared to Mizzy, all flesh, bone, sinew and, as yet, unfulfilled potential? As he becomes more obsessed with the young man, whom he imagines owning (in his words “curating”), the balance of power begins to shift.
Although this novel feels like a short story fleshed out to just under two-hundred and forty pages, it has enough depth to be a satisfying, if rather brief, read. There is sufficient back-story to understand Peter in such a way that readers are prepared to believe that he could exchange his marriage and career for the youthful beauty that Mizzy offers. However, since the book is told solely from Peter’s point of view, only at the very end of the story do we learn anything of Rebecca’s thoughts and feelings. Her role is limited to being compared, poorly, to Mizzy, who is first painted as a lost soul, as a “swoony Renaissance Sebastian” and, finally, as a manipulative schemer, driven by his addictions and his aimlessness – more artifice than art.
By Nightfall is an elegant novel with a dry, restrained prose style. It is also very funny in parts. It shines new light on New York, cowed by the new economic reality and the threat of terrorist attack. The dialogue, especially between Peter and Rebecca, is pitch-perfect. It questions the nature of beauty, what it does to us and how we use it and it shows how and why we love the people and things we do. I liked it a lot, and as Mizzy comments about Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, I admired it. I just didn’t love it. And maybe that’s the point.