Michael Cunningham, By Nightfall (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2010)
The Book Club (the one where we swap books and keep discussion of them to a minimum) has introduced me to many writers and kinds of writing that I wouldn’t have sought out otherwise. Thanks to it I’ve read excellent books I might have prejudged as boring (an engrossing biography of a World Bank CEO comes to mind). But there have also been books the lender thought was brilliant that stank in my nostrils. By page 34, I was thinking By Nightfall might be about to join Philip Roth’s The Humbling as one of my stinkers (though nowhere near as pungent as that). Two characters’ visit to the Metropolitan Museum on page 34 came close to tipping the balance:
… Peter and Bette walk together through the Great Hall at the Met, grand somnolent portal into the civilized world. Why deny its satisfactions – its elephantine poise, its capacity to excite the very molecules of its own air with a sense of reverent occasion and queenly glamour and the centuries-long looting of five continents. The Hall receives with a vast patience. It’s the mother who’ll never die, and right up front are her votaries, the women of the central kiosk, elderly for the most part, kind-looking, waiting to offer information from under the enormous floral arrangement (cherry blossoms, just now) that festoons the air over their heads with petal and leaf.
This is by no means uncharacteristic of the prose – the pages are littered with such unmurdered darlings. But Cunningham wrote the novel The Hours, the basis for the excellent film of the same name, so I read on. A couple of bedtime reads and a long walk with the dog took me to page 167. I still wasn’t engrossed, but I was planning to read the remaining 71 pages (yes, I was counting pages) to see what Michael Cunningham would make of the (to me) unpromising narrative. Then I was chatting to someone and outlined the story so far – see Sonnet 6 below – and realised I just didn’t care. I read somewhere recently that one of the rules of writing a novel is, ‘Cool stuff now, cooler stuff later,’ that is, ‘Don’t save all your cool stuff to the end – you know it’s coming, but the reader doesn’t.’ There’s probably lots of cool, subtly nuanced stuff towards the end of this book. And maybe what I’ve read is cool to a certain sensibility.
Sonnet 6: The story up to the point where I stopped reading
Our Peter’s life is fairly flat.
He loves his wife, they do sex well
enough, they’re faithful, and that’s that.
Their daughter doesn’t even yell.
His gallery in NYC
is testing his integrity.
The Hirst shark (symbolising death)
is at the Met. But soon a breath
of something new arrives: the younger
brother of his wife, who’s hot,
and often naked, stirs erot-
ic yens in Pete. This new-found hunger
leads to reams of introspection
and one psychoanalysed erection.
I peeked ahead after I wrote that.
Peter does kiss Mizzy, his brother in law, which seems to lead to a lot more introspection and a little conversation. My guess, based on a skim of the last pages, is that it all turns out satisfyingly inconclusive in the end.