A Visit from the Prince
By Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
Michael Cunningham’s new novel By Nightfall is about paradox, so I’ll begin with one of my own: this book is so good that I read it three times in order to understand why it isn’t quite good enough. What is it, exactly, that makes By Nightfall both deeply charismatic and slightly disappointing? What I feel about this novel is not the simple disappointment produced by obvious mediocrity, but the far more painful and ambiguous sensation aroused by watching a great talent underperform.
Despite a relatively short and uneven bibliography, Michael Cunningham ranks among the best contemporary American novelists. His reputation rests primarily upon The Hours (1998), an exquisite and complex homage to Virginia Woolf, which won a Pulitzer Prize and then became an Academy Award winning movie. Five years later, Cunningham published Specimen Days, which was 33.3 percent brilliant and 66.7 percent ordinary. The radiant 33.3 percent takes place in nineteenth century New York, and is told through the eyes of an impoverished and oracular child with a misshapen body, a precocious mind, and an involuntary habit of reciting opportune lines from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The second and third parts are also set mainly in New York, but the New York of the future, given over to terrorism, androids, and extraterrestrials. By contrast with the luminous and deeply moving first section, called “In the Machine,” parts two and three of Specimen Days read as rather uneven experiments in genre fiction (quotes from Leaves of Grass notwithstanding), but in hindsight I can see them as predictions of By Nightfall, because they ask what beauty means to human beings, and why we can’t live without it.
Would it be melodramatic to say that about ten years ago, beauty made a comeback? I don’t mean that beauty vanished from the earth until the late 1990s, but that some kind of subtle yet decisive cultural shift took place that redeemed beauty from the charges of frivolity, objectification, and exoticism that besmirched its reputation for several decades, and made it a subject worthy of serious literary and philosophical study again. Indeed, had the title On Beauty not already been used twice recently, first by literary scholar Elaine Scarry (1999) and then by novelist Zadie Smith (2005), it would be the perfect title for Cunningham’s latest novel, which is about a man who believes that only a vision of beauty can save his life. Peter Harris is an art dealer in Manhattan who is on the brink of a cliché: the midlife crisis. At forty-four, he’s bored, tired, and chronically queasy. He’s had enough of selling profitable art that he respects but doesn’t love, and of pandering both to artists and to the very wealthy who buy their work. His wife of over twenty years, Rebecca, is more than happy to be left alone with the newspaper on a Sunday morning; his adult daughter, Bea, will barely speak to him. More than a solution to these domestic problems, what Peter wants is to transcend them:
[H]e can’t stop himself from mourning some lost world, he couldn’t say which world exactly but someplace that isn’t this, isn’t streetside piles of black garbage bags and shrill little boutiques that come and go. It’s corny, it’s sentimental, he doesn’t talk to people about it, but it feels at certain times—now, for instance—like his most essential aspect: his conviction, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that some terrible, blinding beauty is about to descend and, like the wrath of God, suck it all away, orphan us, deliver us, leave us wondering how exactly we’re going to start it all over again.
It’s crucial to the world of By Nightfall, and to all of Cunningham’s writing, that beauty is no more comforting or pacific than a visit from an angel. Angels don’t come to chat: they come bearing apocalyptic news and uncompromising judgments. Beauty too is an advent, a demand. To make this clear, the novel begins with an epigraph from the first of Rilke’s death-haunted Duino Elegies: “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.” You think you want to look beauty in the eye? Get ready to tremble. Prepare to reorganize every corner of your consciousness.
Some of the most fascinating moments in By Nightfall occur when Cunningham is thinking about how people make something or someone beautiful simply by paying enough attention to it, and by extension, stifle the possibility of beauty by looking away. How do aesthetic criteria and perceptual routines change, he asks?
They’re impossibly intricate responses to a billion tiny shifts in the culture, in politics, in the ions of the goddamned atmosphere; you can’t anticipate them or understand them but you can feel them coming, as animals are supposed to be able to feel an earthquake hours before it occurs.
An accumulation of tiny shifts doesn’t just transform perception; it performs acts of “genuine transubstantiation” within the people and things that we look at. Thus the granting or withholding of careful attention is what makes things bloom as beautiful or shrivel into invisibility. Looking can be demiurgic, which means that it is also dangerous, because new life always wants to start a revolution within the world that summoned it. This is exactly why Peter Harris is so eager for beauty: he wants to be transfigured by a “force beyond his own powers” that will grab him by the throat, change his name, drag him out of his loft in SoHo, and give him an alibi for abandoning his life and everyone in it. Beauty took me hostage and made me do it! he could say to anyone who presumed to judge.
Cunningham tends to write polyphonic novels that shift among different voices, places, and time periods, which means that the narrative is filtered through many points of view. But By Nightfall is exclusively the story of Peter Harris: he is its central subject and its organizing consciousness. The problem is that Peter Harris’s mind can’t carry this novel, and to some degree, he seems to know it. One night as he sets off on an insomniac walk through Manhattan, he thinks, “This is no nighttown and you, sir, are no Leopold Bloom”. The reference is of course to Joyce’s epic experiment, Ulysses, but the result of this and all the other literary allusions that glimmer within Cunningham’s prose—to Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Melville, Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Mann etc—is to suggest that Peter does not quite measure up to the impassioned and headlong protagonists of old, who drove the novels they lived in way past the speed limit. This unfavorable comparison certainly doesn’t mean that in the twenty first century a person cannot host an angel or embark upon the radical trespass that it commands: Cunningham has invented many people who genuinely believe that they are Leopold Bloom, or his great-great grandchild, and don’t for a moment think that it is “corny” or “sentimental” to stand vigil for a beauty so blinding that it leaves them orphaned, ruined, and at the same time reborn. It’s just that Peter Harris isn’t one of them. So far Cunningham has written best about people who are blown open, not by some obvious cataclysm but by their own searching and over-reaching natures. They try so hard, want so much, and risk everything to get it. Under no circumstances would one describe these ravenous, vulnerable people as “wised-up” (an adjective that has nothing to do with wisdom, and may in fact be its antithesis).
Like a lot of other people in By Nightfall, Peter Harris works hard to be wised-up. He is knowing and practiced at almost everything, from giving oral sex to his wife (he is a self-proclaimed “clit expert”), to making a diplomatic phone call to a dissatisfied client and selecting precisely the right boots for brunch uptown. He is a grown man who routinely uses sitcom phrases like “What’s up with that?” and “What’s that about?” From the very beginning, both the reader and Peter know that something needs to happen that can obliterate his banal and anaesthetizing urbanity, but not enough does. All sorts of things happen, of course, beginning with the news that Peter’s old friend and colleague Bette Rice has breast cancer and has decided to spend whatever time she has left living quietly in Spain rather than mentoring young artists and selling their work in New York. So first there’s brunch with the “bitch angel of death,” who says that she wants to “love art again” rather than sell it, and makes Peter’s stomach churn with self-doubt, and then there’s an open-ended visit from his wife Rebecca’s much younger brother, Mizzy (so nicknamed because he was conceived by ‘mistake,’ although it’s impossible not to hear the word ‘misery’ here as well). Ah, Mizzy Taylor! So much depends on this very beautiful, charming, and directionless twenty-three-year-old drug addict. In a matter of a few days and two kisses, he will become for Peter the world-opening embodiment of beauty:
Beauty—the beauty Peter craves—is this, then: a human bundle of accidental grace and doom and hope. Mizzy must have hope, he must, he wouldn’t shine like this if he were in true despair, and of course he’s young, who in this world despairs more exquisitely than the young, it’s something the old tend to forget.
Peter is a sensible Midwesterner, more Nick Carraway than Jay Gatsby, but Mizzy is the profligate prince who courts his own annihilation because he can’t figure out what do to with his talents or how to face an ordinary life without them. Peter is horrified and intoxicated by the way Mizzy is wasting his gifts, because, Peter thinks, “the ones who go down can seem as if they’re more complicatedly, more dangerously, attuned to the sadness and, yes, the impossible grandeur” of the world and the way people live in it.
In the final pages of the novel we learn that Mizzy is hustling Peter—the kisses insured that Peter wouldn’t tell Rebecca that her brother is using drugs again—and has no intention of running away with him to Greece (or anywhere else). So much for the beautiful boy. But we also learn, more shockingly, that Rebecca has been discreetly entertaining the same fantasy of escape and transformation that grips Peter, and perhaps errant Mizzy too. When Mizzy called her to ask for a plane ticket to San Francisco, she says that she “was envious. I didn’t want to be myself,” she tells Peter. “I didn’t want to be some mature, levelheaded person who could cut him a check. I wanted to be young and fucked up and, I don’t know. Free.”. Peter is aghast. “No, Rebecca,” he thinks, “you do not want that. You want continuance. I’m the one who wants to be free. I’m the one who’d do unspeakable things.” It’s the re-discovery of Rebecca, whose mind and body he thought he knew so well, that brings about in Peter the self-renewal that the ancient Greeks attributed to grace:
Something rises in Peter, more like a plant being uprooted by an invisible hand than a levitation of soul. He can feel the hairlike roots extracting themselves from his flesh. He is being lifted out of himself, shedding the husk of self, that sad hungry man….But if he’s been a clownish figure he has also been (please God) an acolyte, a lover of love, and his little earthly cavortings were meant to appease a deity, however silly and inadequate his offering.
Peter wonders how he could possibly have overlooked the fact that his wife “has a life of her own, and that the ongoing work of being Rebecca doesn’t always hinge on him.” This is an epiphanic moment, not only for Peter, but for the reader who is trying to make sense of the persistent feeling that there is a flaw in the novel’s conception. Why is it that until the final pages of By Nightfall, Peter Harris is the only character with a life of his own?
Peter spends a lot of time talking to and thinking about Rebecca, Mizzy, and Bea, but they have very little in the way of real and independent interiority. Neither does his gallery assistant, Uta, who may have once had a romantic interest in Peter but now serves mainly to soothe and advise him in a thick German accent, or Carole Potter, the rich art collector who is one of Peter’s most important clients, and merits the following extraordinary description:
Carole is a pale, freckled, blinking woman who seems always to have something small and wonderful in her mouth, a round pebble from the Himalayas, a pearl, that makes it ever so slightly difficult for her to speak clearly but conveys, at the same time, that she has gratefully sacrificed precise diction for the tiny precious object that resides on the back of her tongue.
We learn a great deal about Carole Potter’s appearance, her social status, her staff, her home, and her garden, to say nothing of the wonderful hypothetical object that disrupts her speech, but not enough about who she actually is or what she thinks. Like so many other characters in this novel, she vanishes the minute Peter stops looking at her. The result of this chronic imaginative withholding is that Cunningham can end the novel with a startling act of imaginative exposure, which in turn permits the revelation that Peter’s transfiguration will be brought about not by a beautiful object or a young prodigal, but by the inexhaustible fascination that he feels for a woman he’s known for over twenty years, a woman who just “keeps changing and changing.” It’s a wise ending, but the novel suffers a great deal to make it possible.
Cunningham writes that everyone carries within them
a jewel of self, not just the wounds and the hopes but an innerness, what Beethoven might have called the soul, that self-ember we carry, the simple fact of aliveness, all snarled up with dream and memory but other than dream and memory…; that minor infinitude….
There isn’t enough jewel-like innerness in By Nightfall until its very last pages, which show us what we’ve been missing but make us wonder why we had to wait. It turns out that beauty comes from encountering the “minor infinitude” of another person’s mind, and few living writers can conjure that intimate vastness quite like Michael Cunningham. It’s life-saving work, and By Nightfall needs more of it.
Alice Brittan teaches post-colonial and world literature at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is currently working on a book about material and imaginative exchange called Empty-Handed.