By Ron Charles
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; C01
By Michael Cunningham.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
What are we to make of Michael Cunningham's horny new novel about the power of beauty to rouse us from ennui? The question gets no help from the publisher, which illustrates its dark title with a funereal tulip instead of, say, the abs on Michelangelo's "David." The dust jacket describes "By Nightfall" as "heartbreaking . . . full of shocks and aftershocks." But actually, it's rather witty and a little outrageous -- none of that difficult reanimation of Virginia Wolfe in "The Hours," which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize, or the Whitmanian sprawl of his last novel, "Specimen Days." No, from the complex triptychs of his previous two books, Cunningham has moved to a svelte story with just a touch of actual plot about an art dealer feeling cramped by his own smallness. With its eroticized reflections on modern aesthetics and liberal guilt, it's like watching a bi-curious college professor annotate an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue.
At 44, Peter Harris is contentedly married (20 years) and living in a SoHo loft that makes him feel proud if cliche. As the owner of an exclusive gallery, he glides through the wealthiest houses and apartments, ingratiating and confident in equal measure as he manages the anxieties and vanities of his artists and clients. He's "never graduated to the majors," but a few careful moves could elevate him into that rarefied realm.
One of the pleasures of this novel is Cunningham's description of these intoxicating homes, from the "insistent glittery buzz" of a Manhattan party to a rambling mansion on the coast, "all fieldstone and gables, girded on three of its four sides by verandas; contrived, somehow, with a sense of absolute authenticity." Among the many classic literary voices he channels is F. Scott Fitzgerald, simultaneously swooning over and deriding these gorgeous temples of consumerism.
And he's even better with the trophies that decorate such homes: the objects that pass through galleries like Peter's, trying to catch the eye of the right editor, the right curator or a handful of influential critics who can transform, say, a giant ball of tar and hair into a multimillion-dollar masterpiece. Cunningham moves fluently through this occult world of fortune and taste, demonstrating his appreciation for modern art and his disdain for the lacquer of hucksterism. He can riff brilliantly on the bizarre work of Damien Hirst (remember that shark in formaldehyde) just as confidently as he can make up his own artists and slot their pieces into the cult of beauty, shock and excess money.
We meet Peter when he's quietly mulling over the dissatisfactions of his life, among them the nagging worry that he's failed his college-aged daughter and the sense that he's not quite ambitious enough or vulgar enough to rise higher. After a "lifelong, congenital disappointment," a deeper thirst is troubling him, too, a desperate desire for a kind of beauty that seems out of reach: "He can't stop himself from mourning some lost world, he couldn't say which world exactly but someplace that isn't this."
Yes, this is another midlife crisis novel (a crowded market if there ever was one), but it's redeemed by the hero's willingness to mock his preciousness, to recognize the audacity of even a sliver of discontent amid such bounty. During a night of queasy insomnia Peter thinks, "How could he, could any member of the .00001 percent of the prospering population, dare to be troubled . . . ? He is impossibly fortunate; frighteningly fortunate. Your troubles, little man? Think of them as an appetizer that didn't turn out quite right. You should sing and frolic, you should make obeisance to any god you can think of."
While Jonathan Franzen -- God bless him -- is still pumping away at the big-plotted novel, several other super-sophisticated writers have published books this year about middle-aged men studying their navels: I'm thinking of James Hynes's "Next," Jonathan Lethem's "Chronic City" and Joshua Ferris's "The Unnamed" -- a mixed bag, to be sure, but all plot-starved books that put tremendous pressure on the author's style. In that regard, Cunningham reigns supreme. There are flashier, more pyrotechnic stylists, but for pure, elegant, efficient beauty, Cunningham is astounding. He's developed this captivating narrative voice that mingles his own sharp commentary with Peter's mock-heroic despair. Half Henry James, half James Joyce, but all Cunningham, it's an irresistible performance, cerebral and campy, marked by stabbing moments of self-doubt immediately undercut by theatrical asides and humorous quips.
Peter, you see, is a man burdened with hyper-self-analysis that delivers every personal insight gilded with irony. He reflexively thinks of himself and those around him in terms of literary characters and mythologized historical figures. They crowd his imagination (and these pages), from Isabel Archer to Dorothea Brooke, Helen and the Trojans, Ludwig of Bavaria, Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby, Dante and Beatrice.
But what gives the novel its considerable frisson is the intrusion of Peter's impossibly seductive, much younger brother-in-law. Nicknamed Mizzy ("The Mistake"), Ethan is a bisexual drug addict who's sucked up his family's money and affection for years. He wants to crash with his sister and Peter while he figures out what he'd like to do next -- maybe "Something in the Arts." Till then, he'll just tiptoe around the apartment in full-frontal Grecian splendor and masturbate in his room. Peter reacts with politely repressed disdain, but the young man's beauty quickly overwhelms him and soon he's fantasizing about touching Mizzy's "pallid, fine-boned prettiness," his "slumbering perfection. . . . It had seemed to him that angels might look like this."
How gay is it?
That's Peter's question, but ours, too, as the novel becomes increasingly flamboyant, giving itself over to a lush internal melodrama, "the painful gorgeousness of caring that much." Of course, Peter is self-aware enough to acknowledge the homosexual component of his attraction, but he also sees his brother-in-law, this "beautiful princeling," as a long-lost work of art, the perfect object that demolishes everything and remakes his world.
This is not an easy argument to make with a straight -- or gay -- face. There's a touch of "I buy Playgirl for the articles" here, and Cunningham pushes hard on celebrating a kind of beauty that transcends mere sexual desire. Even without a death in Venice, it gets a bit overwrought, though only in ways that Cunningham anticipates and acknowledges -- all "very nineteenth century," as a discreet colleague observes. While the drama between Peter and his feckless brother-in-law is arresting, it can't really rise to tragedy or romance or even scandal because Peter is too self-conscious of the situation's competing meanings: psychological, aesthetic and farcical. "He's a poor, funny little man, isn't he?" he says of himself toward the end, but most of us poor, funny little people don't have Peter's capacity to simultaneously critique and star in our own psychosexual crises.
If the novel's final revelation seems a bit bland, it's more than compensated for by the insight and humor that come before. Admittedly, "By Nightfall" doesn't have the emotional breadth of "The Hours," but it's a cerebral, quirky reflection on the allure of phantom ideals and even, ultimately, on what a traditional marriage needs to survive.
Charles is The Post's fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/RonCharles.