As much as I enjoyed Michael Cunningham’s sylphlike new novel By Nightfall, my enjoyment was diminished by one writerly tic: the over-insertion of literary talismans into the text. Cunningham bestows on his narrator a present-tense awareness of mid-life obsession that would approach a tour-de-force of contemporary voice if it weren’t so frequently bedazzled by literary fragments and character name-checks from the Greats. Cunningham’s hyper-referencing didn’t stop me from finishing By Nightfall — in fact the story’s inventive premise and fearless examination of a flawed, desirous consciousness made me read it more greedily than most novels I’ve picked up lately — but too often my immersion in Peter Harris’ life was interrupted by a distracting nod to Proust or James or Eliot or Hawthorne or Cheever, or by a silly mention of “the eyes of Dr. T. J. Ecklesbury” from The Great Gatsby, or by the willy-nilly name-checking of Isabel Archer and Dorothea Brooke and Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina and Raskolnikov, or by an unnecessarily meet-cute approach to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice via The Magic Mountain, when it’s clear that the former contains the resonant parallels to By Nightfall.
Homage and reinvention are not my quarrel here. While there are scenes and themes in By Nightfall that echo Death in Venice, the action of Cunningham’s novel is new, and portrays more time, commerce, and interpersonal connection than the Mann novella, and also raises its own questions about love, youth, death, family, and the professional pursuit of art. If Cunningham had trusted his solo ability to create those portrayals and questions without rubbing so many literary good-luck charms, or repeating a singular line from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, or cadging some poignant dénouement weather from James Joyce’s “The Dead,” By Nightfall would be a more elegant book.
There’s the obvious issue of how much literary knowledge a traditionally-educated dealer in contemporary art would have running through his brain. Even if we suspend disbelief on this, a novel of 238 pages cannot carry that many literary precursors without sacrificing some momentum. It’s like pinning a plethora of antique brooches onto a starlet’s chiffon slip dress — the delicate fabric will droop, distort, and even rip under the weight of the anachronistic jewels. Better to leave the elegant, modern dress unadorned and unweighted, free to suggest the beautiful form that moves inside its charming habiliment, a creature and a consciousness unique to this place and this moment.
It’s a small shame, because the first chapter of By Nightfall executes a sinuous mise-en-scène of the novel’s themes and characters, beginning with the genius first line: “The Mistake is coming to stay for a while.” An original, intriguing, and pre-coiled opening that is quickly cinched tighter by the wife’s spoken question: “’Are you mad about Mizzy?’” Unfortunately, the insertion of fusty literary forbears begins almost immediately, when Cunningham stitches a heavy, uncredited phrase from the first line of James Joyce’s Ulysses into a perfectly serviceable line of Manhattan description:
An elderly bearded man in a soiled, full-length down coat, grand in his way (stately, plump Buck Mulligan?), pushes a grocery cart full of various somethings in various trash bags, going faster than any of the cars.
I prefer the sentence with the Mulligan deleted. Once the interrogative interruption is removed, the sentence maintains a trundling rhythm that more closely mimics the man’s determined pace:
An elderly bearded man in a soiled, full-length down coat, grand in his way, pushes a grocery cart full of various somethings in various trash bags, going faster than any of the cars.
The de-Joyced sentence keeps the reader right there with Peter Harris in his taxi on his way to a cocktail party in Manhattan, ready for the next present action. The sentence with the literary fragment risks forcing the reader into a detour from the always fragile novel-acclimation phase in order to half-remember the college class that made Ulysses so accessible (thank you, Professor Chace), or to muse pointlessly on the family tradition of allowing mulligans at minigolf. A persnickety Joyce-lover (qui, moi?) might stall out of By Nightfall while puzzling over the reference’s nonsensicalities: in Ulysses Buck Mulligan is a medical student (not elderly) who emerges from his panoramic tower (not homeless) in the morning (not the evening) with shaving implements (no beard). Yes, he wears an open robe, which is reminiscent of the long down coat, but that seems a paltry reverberation for such a freighted and famous allusion, especially when it lands on a character whose situation is pitiable and whose role in the novel is momentary. Yes, it’s a lovely hunk of language, but why include it at this delicate stage in a novel, and why include it at all if you don’t need it? In the next paragraph Cunningham writes, “Inside the cab, the air is full of drowsily potent air freshener. . .” The writer who can evoke the atmosphere in present-day New York cabs with the words “drowsily potent air freshener” doesn’t need to reach backward for “stately, plump.”
And would a guy like Peter Harris plausibly recall that phrase from Ulysses? It seems unlikely, as he reads mostly emails and the newspaper throughout the novel, and spends more time discussing films than books. The inclusion of a snippet of Joyce in his consciousness so early in the novel misdirects the reader’s attempt to get acquainted with the narrator: it does nothing to characterize the perspective of a man whose essential struggle in By Nightfall will be with beauty of the 3-D variety, and not with the overburnished bibelots of the Western canon. If Peter Harris were a teacher of literature or writing, we might buy it, but he’s not, and I’m glad of it — the world doesn’t need more novelist-narrators. Two pages later Cunningham allows Peter Harris to describe his cab driver with this far more art-dealerish view: “His bald head sits solemnly on the brown plinth of his neck.” Cunningham maintains Peter Harris’ innate aesthetic point-of-view for the majority of the novel, and devotes a good amount of text to inventing and describing the art he loves and the art he wants to sell, which is all much more satisfying and diverting than the dropped-in literary references.
The reason I’m so worked up about these insertions is because Cunningham both doesn’t need them and doesn’t seem to see how they encumber his novel and pull it away from its central perspective. At their most benign, they function as distractions to the text; at their most malign they are intimidations. Brush-up visits to Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (though I adore it) and hasty skims of Wikipedia are unlikely to enhance a reader’s experience of a novel. I can imagine how literary talismans might clamor for attention in a writer’s mind, and that including them might have been irresistible in the act of composition, but they should have been deleted before publication, by the editor if the author couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Here, from the end of the first chapter of By Nightfall, is an example of the art dealer’s insomniac stream-of-consciousness, as written by Cunningham and free of literary talismans:
. . . with time ticking through you and your own ghost already wandering among your rooms.
The trouble is. . .
He can feel something, roiling at the edges of the world. Some skittery attentiveness, a dark gold nimbus studded with living lights like fish in the deep black ocean; a hybrid galaxy and sultan’s treasure and chaotic, inscrutable deity. Although he isn’t religious, he adores those pre-Renaissance icons, those gilded saints and jeweled reliquaries, not to mention Bellini’s milky Madonnas and Michelangelo’s hottie angels.
This is all the writing the novel needs. It evokes the narrator’s existential angst and characterizes his high/low lust for aesthetic gratification in language that is consistent with a 44-year-old art dealer living in Manhattan in the early 21st century.
Of course Cunningham in not the only contemporary author with this lit-a-brac tendency. I’m still annoyed with Ian McEwan for hanging a climactic plot point in Saturday on borrowed lines from Mathew Arnold’s 1885 poem “On Dover Beach.” The scene would have been much braver, and the outcome much more plausible, if the daughter-poet had given the thug what he was asking for: a recitation of her own original smutty verse, composed on the spot if necessary. I recently heard Ann Beattie say in an interview with Robin Young for WBUR’s “Here and Now” that she had one of her characters say a couple of lines about The Great Gatsby in her recent novella Walks With Men, as a “wink” to the reader who recognizes that her writing in that section sounds a little bit like Fitzgerald’s, to signal that it’s a deliberate echo on Beattie’s part and to encourage that reader to conflate the two texts, while also hoping that scene would still work “in its own way” for the reader who isn’t interested. Just as Oprah gets celebrities to sign contracts saying they won’t use cell phones behind the wheel, I’d like to get my favorite authors to sign contracts renouncing all sly echoes of Fitzgerald, Proust, James, Woolf, Joyce, Flaubert, ad nauseum while at the keyboard.
There should be an absolute prohibition against repeating a repeat. In the final, transformative, and satisfyingly plot-twisted chapter of By Nightfall, Cunningham inserts a famous line from Madame Bovary – “Banging on a tub to make a bear dance when we would move the stars to pity,” – twice (!) within five pages, both times unattributed and set off in its own little echo-chamber paragraph. How I wish he hadn’t. A few pages later Cunningham evokes Peter Harris’ self-reckoning with this new language:
Oh, little man. You have brought down your house not through passion but through neglect. You who dared to think of yourself as dangerous. You are guilty not of the epic transgressions but the tiny crimes.
Cunningham’s text is truer to the thrust of the novel, and it moved me much more than the by-now mangy line from Flaubert.
I picked on By Nightfall in this review because I feel its excess of literary cameos and references proves the rule: evoke, don’t invoke. What truly thrills me as a reader is prose and character made new, out of nothing I’ve seen before. I wish that I could read By Nightfall for the first time without the anachronistic freight — I suspect that I would love it, and not just like it a lot.