Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Michael Cunningham

I finished Mr. Cunningham's latest novel, By Nightfall, just before bed last night and have been thinking about it since 5ish this morning. I scarcely know where to begin to describe this beautifully written novel and the plethora of themes that the author has managed to include in scarcely 200 pages.

Those of you who've read his Pulitzer Prize winning take on Virginia Woolf, The Hours, will know what to expect in the way of literary excellence, but where that book was unrelentingly melancholy, this one has a note of redemption and acceptance, a fact that may be the result of the aging of the author or, perhaps, the aging of this reader.

I recall clearly standing in line to meet Mr. Cunningham at a Book Expo in New York City. An exquisitely beautiful man in the traditional Greco/Roman ideal, he was unassuming and pleasant to this author-stalker as I handed him our reading festival packet and issued the invite. Overly intimidated by genius, I didn't even have the courage to get a signed copy of, I think it was his non-fiction book, Land's End,. like everyone else in the queue was doing! He said we'd hear from him but our festival didn't end up fitting into his schedule. Truth to tell, a writer of his caliber probably wouldn't draw the crowds he deserves here in Southwest Florida.

By Nightfall is, fittingly, about beauty and its demise. It's a novel about aging. It's a novel about sensuality and sexuality, about long-term relationships and fleeting ones. It's about family, friends, parenthood, miscalculations and betrayals. It is achingly true and astonishingly hopeful.

As an observer of life, Michael Cunningham is breathtakingly spot on. The first scene between long-married Peter and Rebecca fills with tension as a discussion ensues in the back seat of a N.Y. City cab. On their way to a party neither one wants to attend, they contemplate the upcoming visit of Rebecca's much younger brother, a reformed drug addict, aimless genius, and the bane of Rebecca's existence. Each makes a conscious decision not to annoy the other, at least until later. It's such a telling, realistic examination of the dance of marriage.

Relieved empty nesters, their relationship with their only daughter is fraught with tension, not to mention the very real false memory syndrome, Peter and Rebecca live the settled-in lives of two career households. Peter's work is to recognize and evaluate beauty, a subjective responsibility is ever there was one. He owns a gallery with friend and partner, Uta. The hope is that Peter will take Rebecca's baby brother under his wing, introducing him to the joys of the art world, maybe even putting him to work.

Rebecca's brother Mizzy has an agenda. The beautiful young man, gay or bi-sexual, we're not sure, is too smart by half. Sensing the malaise in his sister's marriage and Peter's lingering sorrow over the death of his revered older brother of AIDS, Mizzy parades, pouts and charms his way into Peter's psyche, acting as a catalyst for an explosion of emotions that Peter has long held in check.

The language, the insight, the amazing way Michael Cunningham has of handling extremely complicated feelings with spare and perfect prose must cause other writer's to writhe with envy. I, on the other hand, just want to tell everyone "read this book."