New York art world a canvas of love's many sides
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Michael Cunningham is turned on by complexity. In both his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Hours" and the one that followed it, "Specimen Days," he created triptychs:
Each novel contained three different plotlines, in three different periods of time. And both ambitious books paid homage to the influence to a great writer, Virginia Woolf in the first, Walt Whitman in the second.
In his new novel, Mr. Cunningham paints on a much more limited canvas. He narrows his focus to Peter Harris, 44, owner of a second-tier art gallery, living happily enough in the West Village with his wife, Rebecca.
Their one rebellious daughter has dropped out of college to tend bar in Boston, but otherwise their world is not much larger than the distance from uptown to downtown Manhattan.
When the novel begins, Rebecca's 20-year-younger brother Mizzy (nicknamed for his family position as "the mistake") has come to stay for a while. Mizzy, both superstar student and former drug addict, has landed on their doorstep fresh out of rehab with the vague notion that he'd like to "do something in art."
Mizzy enters their tidy household as youth and beauty incarnate. He is a figure, Peter thinks, an artist would cast in bronze. Mizzy rather disturbingly resembles Rebecca in her youth, and Peter, art appreciator even more than he is a dealer, is captivated by him.
That's about it, as far as plot goes. As compared with the author's previous two novels, this subject and scope seem almost minimalist. But Mr. Cunningham, being Mr. Cunningham, writes deeply if not largely within this circumscribed frame.
Like his earlier muse, Virginia Woolf, his project is to mine the layers of any given moment, where what a person experiences is not only the actual event, but also the layering of it with fears, secrets, longings.
The novel is narrated from the point of view of Peter, insomniac, middle-aged in an edgy world, hyper-aware and reflective.
The narrative is so deeply embedded in his perspective that it's often inner monologue. His relentless self-examination ranges from whether his jacket is still cool enough for the hipper ends of the Village, to what art can mean when all the money in New York seems to be gone, to the "different atmospheres and weathers" of a long marriage.
This tightly limited point of view could verge on the claustrophobic, but fortunately Peter's is an interesting mind to inhabit. His thoughts about the place of art and his descriptions of actual pieces he works with are so fascinating that readers will want to visit his gallery.
During a few weeks, Peter mounts a new show, takes on a new artist, sells a sculpture, and comes home not so much to his wife as to her brother.
Who is this kid, anyway? Is he Rebecca, restored to youth and strangely transposed into a male form? Is he Peter's brother lost to AIDS in his youth? Is he Peter's daughter come back, one last chance to get parenting right?
Or is he the ultimate beautiful object longed for by every seeker after art?
In this mixing up of art and desire, Mr. Cunningham bears down on the question of how much of sexual attraction is fundamentally art appreciation, the desire to commune or merge with what is beautiful, to appropriate it for one's own.
We could dismiss "By Nightfall" as one more story of midlife angst in a metrosexual art snob, no less. But in this very particular case study, Mr. Cunningham is continuing to explore what has been the subject of every one of his previous five novels -- the possibilities of love in a broken world.
Is the desire for more -- more beauty, more meaning, the evanescence of youth -- ultimately ennobling or pathetic?
Beneath the big city art-scene sophistication, the world weariness of his protagonists, the novelist is genuinely interested in the conflict between human yearning for the sublime -- whether it is for transcendent art or passionate relationship -- and the world we really live in, with its wrinkles, failures, blind spots, and embarrassments.
At the end of "By Nightfall," Peter's epiphany is about heart, not art.
First Published October 24, 2010 12:00 am