Thursday, December 2, 2010

By Nightfall: Not All Art is Prententious, But This Novel Is

Midway through Michael Cunnigham's slim new novel, By Nightfall, a character describes a rich woman's expensively decorated living room as " magnificent it transcends its own pretensions." That's also a good description for what Cunningham must've hoped his novel would be. But since it's not exactly magnificent, we're pretty much left with just pretentious. And the novel, though well-crafted, sure is that.

But the novel failed for another reason, too: Its protagonist is an utter dolt. Far be it from me to need likable characters to enjoy a novel, but Peter Harris is not just unlikeable — he's totally unbelievable. Here's the story: Peter's a mid-40s New York City art dealer in the midst of a crisis. He's not sure he's happy with his life. (Real original, right?) When his wife Rebecca's much-younger, much-troubled brother Mizzy comes for a visit, idealistic Peter develops all these notions of Mizzy as quintessential Youth, Beauty, and the Happiness of his marriage when it was still new. And then, Peter thinks he might be in love with Mizzy. But is he actually in love with Mizzy or is he in love with what he's convinced himself that Mizzy represents?

But heterosexual, married Peter's possible homosexual crush on his brother-in-law (which to Cunningham's credit is certainly an original take on the mid-life crisis dilemma!) is not even the ridiculous part. The ridiculous part is how silly Peter, who Cunningham painstakingly renders as this uber-self-aware, contemplative, hip New Yorker, seems at various points in the novel. He's like a rocket scientist who can't balance his checkbook. As one example of this: Early in the novel, he comes home and sees Mizzy naked in the shower and actually mistakes him for his wife, wondering why she looks so much younger all of a sudden. Yes, this is a foreshadowing of what's to come, but its too gimmicky to be believable. And then later, Peter so blatantly misses some rather important signs that by that point are so obvious to the reader, it's impossible to take him seriously anymore.

So, then, Peter's naïvete contradicts with his (and the novel's) pretentiousness. As evidence of that pretentiousness, read this sentence (from Peter's thoughts): "She sighs voluptuously. She could so easily be a Klimt portrait, with her wide-set eyes and bony little apostrophe of a nose." A beautiful sentence, no doubt. But how does someone sigh voluptuously? And who is Klimt? Peter certainly knows, and maybe that's how an art dealer would think, but Cunningham is practically holding it over his readers' heads that they don't. And that, and dozens of similar examples throughout the novel, are what drags the novel into pretentiousness.

I do think By Nightfall is an original, smart piece of contemporary lit. But to me, the annoying peripherals cancel out the ingenuity of the story and Cunningham's often stylish prose. I'd like to give Cunningham's work another shot, though, because while I didn't much like this one, I know a lot of people really like Cunningham's other work, especially The Hours. Is Specimen Days good?  Any other suggestions on where to look for another shot at Cunningham?


  1. Great review Greg.

  2. I forwarded this review to my friend AT before even reading it. He's nuts about Cunningham...but he more or less agreed with you. He told me I should read Specimen Days, but he liked The Hours best.

  3. Thanks for the post, I do like an honest opinion.

    I sinned as a reader and saw "The Hours" in its filmversion. But I did read "Specimen Days". I kind of liked the first part, the rest wasn't my cup of tea at all.

    No more Cunningham for me, that may sound silly, but there are way too many books out there, I know I will enjoy much more. Your review kind of confirms that idea.

  4. so I absolutely love Cunningham and have read every one of his books, but for somebody who doesn't quite enjoy his Cunningham's type of books, I would certainly recommend The Hours first, it's still my favourite. And I love Specimen Days although the sci-fi section isn't quite my cup of tea. Flesh and Blood is pretty good too, and i wasn't really a fan of a Home at the End of the World as much as his other books.

  5. Dear Mr. Zimmerman,

    I haven't liked anything I picked up (but I'm always quick to point out that the fault may be more with me that with the author whose work I don't care for). Rather than read _The Hours_ I'd recommend reading Virginia Woolf herself (not to you, necessarily, but it is my catch-line about _The Hours_). What you describe here, is unfortunately, the sum of my experience with Mr. Cunningham.



  6. I also felt By Nightfall fell short, though I liked it much more than you. This could be becuase I know who Klimt is. (I'm not a fan of his though.)

    Is the problem Cunningham's pretention or Peter Harris's? Either way it does become a problem.

    I thought the book worked as a look into how the art world functions. I'm not convinced it works as a look at how a marriage functions.

    Do not read Speciman Days. Even if you are alone on a deserted island. You will find other uses for the book. The Hours is excellent. I liked Flesh and Blood and Home at the End of the World too.

  7. Thanks for the honest review. I might try The Hours as my first work of Cunningham's since thaat seems to be by far the most popular and accessible work, and go from there.

  8. I nearly bought this book last night at my bookclub's xmas party, but passed over it - now I feel much relieved that I didn't and chose something else instead. And I now feel a bit clever as I know who Klimt is, he is one of my favourite artists, I've got a thing for metallics. Although I'm not really that clever, I only know about 10 famous artists so I'm sure I would be nonplussed by all the other references. Thanks for making me feel mildly intellectual and relieved I didn't waste my money on a dud!

  9. You do too know who Klimt is. His work is on more posters and calendars than you can shake a stick at.

  10. One more thing I meant to mention. If you thought this was pretentious you might also find The Hours pretentious with its ties to Mrs. Dalloway and Specimen Days you will surely dislike with its three stories linked by Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. If you want unpretentious Cunningham you need to read his first two books. They are fairly standard plotted stories of families and relationships. Don't get me wrong, I like all of Cunningham's books to various degrees.

  11. @Man - Thanks! And thanks again for tweeting the review, too.

    @Ben - Glad to get corroboration on this one from a Cunningham fan.

    @superheidi - Yeah, sounds like you gave him his fair shot. I want to try him again just because I could definitely recognize a type of writing I could enjoy, but the story and character themselves were what struck me as pretentious, and turned me off.

    @Zoe - Thanks for the recommendations. I'm not sure I'd like the Virginia Woolf novel, but Flesh and Blood does sound very interesting!

    @Steve - Wow, very formal. ;) You confirm what I'm beginning to suspect: That Cunningham is a bit of a polarizing figure. Sounds like you're not much of a fan at all. I still want to try something else by him, though.

  12. @CB James - (SPOILER ALERT - don't read this part of the comment if you haven't read the novel, but plan to) The problem was certainly more Cunningham's pretentiousness, but that manifested itself most clearly in how he made Peter pretentious too. But my biggest problem (which I didn't explain as clearly as I'd hoped in the review) is how Peter's "smartness" directly contrasted with his stupidity and naivete. He couldn't recognize Mizzy's blackmail??? C'mon. I understand he didn't necessarily want to believe that about Mizzy - his Ideal - but at some level, as honest with himself as he is everywhere else in the novel, he would've had to at least contemplated the possibility (which Cunningham should've showed us, his readers!)...

    @Guinevere - Yeah, based on these comments, it seems like The Hours is rather popular. And it did win a Pulitzer!

    @mummazappa - Yeah, Klimt is just one of many, many examples. There were also some literary references which I didn't get - and that made me extra mad! ;)

    @Thomas - Yeah, after doing a brief search, I recognize Klimt. But still, that's just one example of several dozen reference like that in which Cunningham seems to be purposely drawing attention to (i.e., name dropping) his prowess and knowledge of art, literature, etc. And don't get me wrong, just because a novel references something else, that's not what makes it pretentious. It's when it does it over and over again in a variety of different ways to a variety of different artists/authors in a way that doesn't add much (or anything) to the novel. That's what we had here, in my opinion.

  13. I've only read The Hours(which got me inspired enough to read Mrs. Dalloway)but haven't bothered with any of Michael Cunningham's work since.

    Some authors are just like that,for me at least. One book is enough to tell me everything he/she has to say-I've felt the same way about Bret Easton Ellis,Jay McInerney and Carol Shields.

  14. It is SO lovely to leave a blog post without adding one darn thing to my TBR pile!

  15. Without believable, and at least mildly likeable or sympathetic, characters, a book will not make the magnificent cut for me.

  16. Great, honest review!! I like how you gave the good and bad...without being negative about the book! I like that!!
    Followed you over from Cym's Book Review Party!

  17. Thanks for the honest review. This sat in my to-read pile for weeks until a friend reviewed it as "cold", and I knew I wouldn't enjoy it. I hate pretentious books.

  18. I was reading your review thinking that I read a book that was also very pretentious when I realized it was the same book! I had read an advanced reviewers copy - so I hadn't reconized the cover. I never made it to the end.

  19. Hmmm. I think I just sighed voluptously. (Seriously?) Great review. I appreciate the specificity of your comments and pointing out the disparities so clearly. I hate it when a reviewer isn't specific. On a similar note, The Bird Catcher by Laura Jacobs is seriously pretentious. So many references to art and culture and fashion designers, it was dizzying. I actually felt ignorant after. I think it will seriously date the novel.
    In any case, Woolf is so much better!
    BTW, confession: I hate Roth's writing. Am I an idiot?

  20. I tend to agree with your review, though By Nightfall was very well written and, to some measure, I thought it was worth reading just for that. I certainly liked The Hours more, but my favorite Cunningham is Speciman Days... though the third novella was the weakest in that.