In Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, middle age becomes a second adolescence, ripe with the same confused restlessness, heightened desire, and crushing heartbreak that is, generally speaking, the special province of sensitive, love-struck teenagers. Imagine now that passionate strain of teenage melancholia conflated with and compounded by the familiar cruelties of middle age: the softening belly and disappearing ass, hair turning the color of ashes, and the unsettling ease with which a long marriage becomes reduced to a predictable palette of “atmospheres and weathers”—fights forecasted by palpable shifts in tone or mood, sexual overtures communicated through uninspired, rote gestures.
This is where Peter Harris, the successful Manhattan gallery owner at the center of Cunningham’s novel, finds himself: trapped in a fog of sensible middle age ennui, yet entirely capable of being transfixed by beauty with an ardor to rival any 15 year old. The soft belly and gray hairs and comfortable but dull marriage—these are the peripheral cruelties of middle age that hover at the edge of his discontent. Peter has graduated into midlife with all outward signs of maturity and respectability intact (the spacious SoHo loft, the—presumably—rock-solid marriage, the circle of urbane friends), but buried under the black suit and firm handshake, there’s a part of him that’s not quite ready to “reconfirm his allegiance to the realm of the sensible.” There’s part of him, rarely manifested in everyday life, that fantasizes of “that other, darker world—Blake’s London, Courbet’s Paris; raucous, unsanitary places where good behavior was the province of decent, ordinary people who produced no works of genius.”
From this tension arises a peculiar midlife crisis, stemming from Peter’s lifelong fascination with beauty and mortality, twin obsessions that come to life in a vivid scene from memory. On a distant holiday to a Michigan beach with his beautiful brother, Matthew (who would perish young from AIDS), and Matthew’s close friend, Joanna, the high school beauty Peter lusted after all through adolescence, he will always remember this:
“Joanna is demonstrating the concept of desire by way of rounded buttocks half covered by the V of her cantaloupe-colored bikini bottom. Matthew is taut and muscular from skating…The two of them stand in blue-black water with their backs to Peter, looking out at the milky haze of the horizon, and as Peter watches from the sand he is taken by a sea-swell of feeling, utterly unexpected…It’s a pure, thrilling, and slightly terrifying apprehension of what he will later call beauty, though the word is insufficient. It’s a tingling sense of divine presence, of the unspeakable perfection of everything that exists now and will exist in the future…”
The sense of beauty as a divine and eternal life force is powerfully reignited with the arrival of Mizzy (“the Mistake”), Rebecca’s much younger brother, who drifts into their SoHo loft for a stay of indefinite length. Mizzy—born to older parents, adored and spoiled by three doting big sisters who have come to treat him as their pet project—is nothing short of beauty incarnate. He could be, Cunningham tells us more than once, a Rodin bronze.
In his short life, Mizzy has already taken part in innumerable scandalous love affairs with an array of fascinating men and women, abandoned a promising career at Yale to commune with hippies on an Oregon farm, prayed with Japanese monks in a stone garden. He is also a rehabilitated drug addict, utterly rootless and directionless, arriving in New York with the idea to do “something in the arts.”
Peter’s uneasy around Mizzy, who’s not averse to hanging out in the kitchen in the nude, displaying the Grecian perfection of his physique without the smallest suggestion of modesty or self-consciousness. But Peter also finds himself inexplicably drawn to Mizzy. Mizzy is beauty in full bloom. He’s a composite of all the beautiful figures he has ever known. He’s Blake’s London, Coubert’s Paris. It would be worth ruining a marriage—an entire life—to be loved, even briefly, by Mizzy.
Against the odds, Cunningham succeeds in fashioning Peter as an empathetic everyman, rendering his character through lush inner monologue that is embedded with minute psychological insight and self-effacing humor. This is a pensive, elegant novel whose emotional reserves draw on the steady accretion of detail, cerebral rumination, and finely observed scenes plucked from the quotidian. But there’s an air of implausibility to the machination and pacing of its thin plot, rescued only by Cunningham’s crystalline prose and the novel’s thematic precision and reach, which articulates the allure of beauty and its special power to make fools of us all.
Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall was released on September 28 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. To purchase it, click here.