The epic qualities of outwardly ordinary lives: By Nightfall and Michael Cunningham in Australia

By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham, HarperCollins (Aus pb, Aus ebook, US and Kindle, UK)

Over the past few days I’ve been in the audience of four sessions featuring my favourite American author Michael Cunningham. Cunningham’s latest novel is By Nightfall. I’ve drafted a few posts on it since I read it, but was never able to adequately capture what he does. Now I can mix my words up with his own and hopefully provide some picture of the work, and of Cunningham himself.

How to write about an author who provokes in the reader the very surges and distances he skilfully writes of? Those flips between detachment and passion? In By Nightfall, Cunningham is writing about art, youth, maleness, beauty; and he is simultaneously making art. For me By Nightfall was not The Hours (a book so close to my heart) or Specimen Days, but I appreciated its focus. Where those two novels spanned eras and sets of characters (though still thematically focused), here Cunningham gets intimate with Peter Harris, a middle-aged, middle-class gallery owner in New York. And so explores the complexity of an individual life.

Peter has been married for many years to Rebecca. Their daughter has flown the nest and distanced herself emotionally and physically from her parents. They enjoy martinis in the afternoon and they attend parties for the sake of attending parties. In the opening scenes they are on their way to one of these parties, and the detail around their almost-fight reminds me of the intricate observations in Richard Yates’ writing. Peter is distracted by what appears to be an older man in a car full of youths, Peter is still surprised by things about his wife (and will continue to be throughout the narrative, despite the fact he convinces himself there isn’t really much more to know). Cunningham said that he was writing about a particular kind of curse that exists, with Peter and Rebecca – a ‘good enough’ marriage. In his novels, Cunningham likes the number three – three characters, three eras, etc. ‘I’m all about three,’ he said.

And so the third element in By Nightfall is Rebecca’s younger brother, Mizzy (short for ‘the mistake’). He’s coming to stay and Peter has mixed feelings about it. When Mizzy arrives he is many things, but one of them is a catalyst for Peter to turn inward – to think about youth (nascence is Cunningham’s favourite word in the novel), art, tragedy and beauty. ‘Peter wants his life to explode, to dismantle itself’, said Cunningham. Related to the ‘dismantling’ come thoughts of his daughter, of his wife as a young woman, of his brother who died of AIDS when he was in his early twenties. The semi-eroticised pull he has toward young Mizzy (and he analyses the nature of it intensely throughout the novel) is related to these other people in his life – and is related to where he is in his life and the things that he isn’t. He isn’t, for example, a dramatic or tragic figure – and there is some envy in that.

Peter loves art, he is drawn to it, but his life is not a work of art, and this is something he is becoming aware of. It was also important for Cunningham to make Peter heterosexual. The erotic pull, as mentioned, is complex – associated with nostalgia, envy and other kinds of longing. Death in Venice was an influence, one of Cunningham’s favourite books – ‘the definitive work on human longing’. ‘Most of us are gawping at something,’ Cunningham said in Sydney. And whatever we identify as, ‘we’re incredibly erotically complex.’ One individual’s sexuality isn’t anything like anybody else’s, there’s ‘erotic individuality’, and writers exist ‘to complicate the world’, he said.

Peter is a gallery owner, as mentioned, and is in crisis over his definitions of art and beauty. I saw Cunningham on a panel with Betty Churcher (chaired by Rowena Danziger), entitled ‘The Pursuit of Beauty’. He spoke about his disdain for contemporary art and its incessant irony. He wanted to write about a man who was ready to dismantle his life in pursuit of an annihilating beauty. Art is a fixation of Cunningham’s, and all his novels have arisen from a fixation of his (such as Virginia Woolf, with The Hours). He actually started out training as an artist. ‘The impulse to create, to produce something beautiful and lasting has been with me a very long time.’ But with visual art he found he lacked some capacity and focus (to develop his talent). It was upsetting to him, but then the idea of creating ‘something like life’ with just words and ink and paper ‘held a bottomless fascination’ for him. He still paints, takes photos, just for pleasure. As his writing has become more recognised he’s felt an increasing need to ‘make things that are not for sale’. He’s even learnt silversmithing. He finds something ‘vital’ in creating something just for himself.

Churcher and Cunningham both praised Duchamp, and touched on Warhol. Churcher spoke about the work of art being what takes place between the artwork and the viewer. A hat rack by the wall is a hat rack, a hat rack on the roof can be a work of art – it’s a matter of perception. If you don’t get it, it’s not a work of art for you, said Churcher. (And all this is riffing on Duchamp’s philosophies.) Churcher said Duchamp was the most influential artist of the 20th Century and Cunningham agreed. When he agrees with something wholeheartedly, he does this face, which I call his ‘exquisite’ face. It’s like a pulling-in of all his features, as if to say oh, yes. Exquisite. It’s like the bottom part of a nod, held and exaggerated.

Cunningham explained his disdain for contemporary art a little more. ‘I see a lot of art in New York City. Okay, I get it. I think I get it… and yet I find myself wondering – where’s the transcendence? Where’s the consolation? Where’s the sense of accompaniment?’ And when he said that, it made me realise how successful he is as a novelist, as an artist. Because those intentions are realised in his work. He said that earnestness is ‘out’ and art is wry, ‘snarky’. ‘I keep thinking that we who care about art are not doing too well on our beauty-free diet’.

Both spoke about art as a commodity, acknowledged that it always has been, but spoke about a certain parallel now with the art world and consumer and celebrity culture. That people would buy art because they ‘should’ have it, not because they love it. This, too, has always existed, but they both agreed that it’s now more pervasive. All Cunningham wants is for an artwork to ‘drive an icepick through my heart’, or turn his head 360 degrees. There is a character in By Nightfall – an art collector – who truly does love art for art’s sake. And this was important to Cunningham, to avoid stereotyping, to ensure all the characters were at some level able to be empathised with. A novel is an ‘engine of empathy’, he said. He’s fascinated by the fact that everyone is the hero of his or her own story. As a novelist you try and express the fact that ‘no one is insignificant and everyone makes sense of themselves,’ and also, ‘everyone is visiting the novel from a novel of their own’. In this way, novels are also inherently political (if they achieve this). Because ‘fiction is the best-known way of producing empathy’ – it shows the reader what it’s like to live as someone else, gives an intimate portrait of the ‘beingness’ of another. Doesn’t that then train you to be more considerate of the multitudinous complexities, the histories, of others?

But Cunningham has been politically active in real life. It was a big ‘slap in the face’ for him and his friends in the ’80s to learn that Reagan and Bush Snr didn’t care about the ‘kind of people’ who contracted and were suffering from AIDS. Certain pharmaceutical companies, too, were withholding information and drugs, and Cunningham was part of the Act Now movement. He was part of a group who disrupted the New York stock exchange, and they were arrested. The epidemic and its aftermath (and of course, it has not gone away) makes its way into his novels, because he is a writer that is interested in reflecting the time that we live in. He does not, however, think a novelist, or an artist is obliged to write about the issues of their time. They are only obliged ‘to write the best damn novel [they] absolutely can’.

For Cunningham – and this is one reason I think his novels affect me so – beauty is threaded with a certain element of mortality. He spoke about when he met his partner, 25 years ago, and how that profound love was entwined with a certain ‘horror’. One, because there was ‘no big romantic surprise still to come’, and two – you’re confronted with your combined mortality. A sense of mortality is ‘threaded through’ the love. And this is also what he’s pursuing in great art: ‘you have to be a little bit fearful’.

Cunningham is so skilled, in his work, at drawing the distances between people – the way that bodies and hearts can be aligned in moments, while minds are on different planes. How rare it is to truly know the motivations of another, the dreams of another. By Nightfall is viewed through Peter’s lens, but the reader can see that even Peter doesn’t know or remember what his wife is like, who his daughter is and where, exactly, he went wrong with her. And not just that – but there are moments when he is surprised by the way other people describe and think of him. He is distant from his own self-in-the-world. It is a study in complexity – and in capturing it, the dark and the light and the attempts to grasp the transient, rare moments of passion (which one still might see as meaning something different later on).

On his own art, Cunningham is oft quoted as saying his idea for a novel exists as a ‘cathedral of light and fire’ in a bubble above his head. The finished book is just that – a book, an object. (And there’s a part in The Hours where Clarissa goes into a bookshop and observes just this – that books are inseparable from the world of objects.) However – this is part of what makes art interesting, that gap between intention and achievement is one of the ‘animating concepts’ of art. It’s interesting because of ‘what it says about human limitations’, he said. He also said, ‘if you’re not trying to do more than what you’re capable of doing, then go away’. The effort and the intention create meaning.

By Nightfall is a book of secrets. A moment of secret pleasure in the thought of mortality, gruesomeness. The quick rage Peter feels in a moment at the party (which you feel in the writing, too) and keeps to himself. Feeling that drug users are ‘romantic, goddamn them’. Thoughts on the sexual self. One of my favourite lines in the novel is: ‘What could be more mortifyingly personal, what veers closer to the depths, than whatever it is that makes us come? If we knew, if we could see what’s in the cartoon balloons over other guys’ heads as they jerk off, would we be moved, or repelled?’ Peter wonders, with mixed-emotions, where the visionaries have gone in a practical, commericialised era of art. There are thoughts on the forbidden, on dirt, on anything but normal normal normal. After psychoanalysing himself Peter says: ‘All this is useful information. Now what?’ This all makes more sense after hearing Cunningham talk about the novel. Peter plays out some of the author’s conflicts (over art, beauty), but he is also a product of them. The character himself is someone who has kind of failed in terms of effort, passion, intention. It was essential to Cunningham that Peter be a 2nd-tier dealer, someone with an immediate ‘feeling of doubt’. He likes writing about people who are not at the top of their field, who are not winners. An early (and continual) influence are the modernists, ie. Joyce and Woolf. As a teenage boy it made him delirious, the idea of the ‘epic qualities of outwardly ordinary lives’, the idea that you could ‘bore in like that’ to some ‘subatomic level’ of the everyday.

Peter, in By Nightfall, is struggling between the thought and the act (of art). People are moved by art and then they go on with their lives. How often are they compelled to become art? Do they ever feel they should? Should they? It reminds me of the character of Laura Brown in The Hours. Reading Virginia Woolf is one of the things that makes her decide she must act. That, in fact, she will die if she does not. Peter’s struggle is a more contemporary one. Look at all the choices he potentially has. But Peter’s disposition means (and this shouldn’t give it away but you’ll know what I mean if you’ve read it) Peter chooses art. He chooses the challenge. The struggle. Cunningham also said he wanted to write about the ‘friendless man’, a type of person he meets who is fascinating and mysterious to him. He wanted Peter to be introspective and complicated (he succeeds). As mentioned, Peter is rhetorically engaged, throughout the book. This was partly about his character, but also partly about rhythm. Language is about meaning, Cunningham said, ‘but also about music’. The Hours was a Schubert sonata, A Home at the End of the World was rock ’n’ roll. By Nightfall was Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Lou Reed. (Side note: he’s met Lou Reed. ‘I fainted, of course’, he laughed.) He teaches creative writing to some lucky mofos in the US. In teaching, his aim is to ‘bring out the voice’. Basically, he suggests things for them to read. When he studied creative writing years ago a teacher told him to mark up a piece with ‘A’ for the best sentences and ‘B’ for the okay ones. Then she make him take out all the As. He learnt that there’s a difference between telling the story and ‘advertising your sensitivity and craftmanship’. This has always stayed with him.

So who does he write for? He writes for Helen. Let me explain. When he was starting out as a writer, he worked in a restaurant in Laguna Beach – the Boom Boom Room, wearing a grass skirt. Helen worked in the restaurant, had been left by her husband, had four ‘criminal’ children, a bunch of debts and also another job. And she was a voracious reader. The reading hour, at the end of everything, was the ‘jewel’ of Helen’s day. She was reading some crime and mystery stories and Cunningham suggested Dostoevsky. Helen read it, she liked it. ‘He’s a lot better than Ken Follett,’ she told him (Cunningham paused for effect here) and then she said: ‘…but not as good as Scott Turow.’ And this idea that Helen would pick up any book, with no sense of pedigree, was thrilling to Cunningham. He decided that maybe it would be more interesting for him ‘to try and write a book for Helen’. Something with depth, with content – but satisfying for her after those incredibly long days. Now he writes with about five specific friends in mind, as ‘gifts’ for them, and that kind of focus aids his process.

In Melbourne he spoke a little more about his process. He walks about 20 minutes to his studio in the mornings, puts on some music to ‘set the molecules in the air going’. Then he sits down to write for at least four hours, six on a good day. He writes daily so as to ‘create and sustain and convince [himself] of a kind of parallel reality’. He is ‘enormously disciplined’, but he leaves his work at the studio and is fully present in the rest of his life: his emails in the afternoon, hanging out with his partner at night. As a young writer it was harder for him to switch off – but he doesn’t want to see the world continually through a lens, of everything being potential ‘material’.

When he submitted The Hours to his editor, they said ‘you know we’re gonna lose all our money on this’. No one had even the remotest idea that it would do as well as it has, would reach so many people. Cunningham’s advice, from this, was: ‘you might as well do what you want to do, because you can’t know.’ The new novel that he’s working on, of which we were treated to an extract at The Big Reading at SWF (Cunningham loved being a part of the reading, with authors he ‘bows down to’, like David Mitchell) is in some ways a ‘companion piece to By Nightfall’ as it looks at a very different body of people who don’t have the money and advantages of the people in BN. He wonders about the search for beauty and transference in those people.

Cunningham has worked on screenplays, too, and he loves film. Writing for film is a wonderful experience as it’s so collaborative, he said. He is not precious about his books being made into films – it’s just an extension of the work, of the process. ‘It’s not the fingernail of a saint’, he said, regarding the book, and you ‘spend your life learning how to write a novel and die trying to make a novel, so… it’s not sacrosanct.’ His favourite book is always his most recent book, and in Melbourne last night it was mentioned that he’s just signed a contract with HBO – not sure if it was for By Nightfall, or something else. I’m looking forward to finding out.

He spoke, too, about endings. And that’s probably a good point to end on. What he tries to do with his novels is end on an ‘expected surprise’, so the reader doesn’t necessarily see it coming, but they can go back through and identify the clues. They don’t see it coming but they think ‘of course it should end like that.’ He often doesn’t know what the ending is going to be. Planning too much feels mechanical, to him. He has to let himself go – pull things up from the magma. ‘That sort of intuitive thing, that permits you to be more insightful than you really are, that allows you to smell things that aren’t really there, only exists if you allow that [non-mechanical exploration] to happen’. How lucky we are, that Michael Cunningham is so successful at pulling those things from the magma, and shaping them into satisfying, complex novels, like By Nightfall.

Thanks so much to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne.

9 thoughts on “The epic qualities of outwardly ordinary lives: By Nightfall and Michael Cunningham in Australia

  1. Really like this but the punch line of the Helen story was that Helen said:’But not as good as Scott Turow NOT Paul Theroux!!! The joke was in Helen comparing a Russian master with a writer of bestselling courtroom dramas.
    Cunningham mumbled his punch line in the telling, maybe because he was still a little hungover from being out partying til 6 am, but he still delivered. He must be such a great teacher, don’t you think?

  2. “For Cunningham – and this is one reason I think his novels effect me so – beauty is threaded with a certain element of mortality.”

    I think MC’s novels *affect* you… Or are you saying you wouldn’t be ‘you’ without them…?

    Great article though; I enjoyed reading it. Thank you.

    • You’re right and I don’t know why I still sometimes mix them up. It’d be nice if people emailed me to point out errors in my posts instead of commenting, though. (My email is on the ‘About Angela’ page.) I am the sole writer, editor and proofreader of this blog so it’s inevitable that some will slip through. I’m glad you liked the post though!

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