By Nightfall: A Novel

By Nightfall - Michael Cunningham I read Michael Cunningham's first novel, A Home at the End of the World last month, and wholly enjoyed it. Nearly as much as The Hours, but the bookishness of the latter (or, perhaps I should say, the Woolfishness) left it in the lead for my favourite Michael Cunningham book. It's still secure in its positioning now that I've read By Nightfall.

One of the things that I most enjoyed about his other novels is the way they were brimming with interconnections (if you've read The Hours, you know exactly what I mean). And not only that, but the multiple narrative perspectives. Both of these elements contributed to the sense that the story was complex, vibrant and layered.

In contrast: By Nightfall, the story of Peter Harris, one man grappling with the search for meaning in New York City.

Here he is:
"He stands at the railing, with the black ocean hurling itself at his feet and the little Christmas lights of Staten Island strung along the horizon as if they'd been placed there to delineate the boundary between dark opague ocean and dark starless sky."

You can see it, can't you? A quintessential New York scene. And the novel does throb with the pulse of the city, embodying the dichotomies that occupy Peter (the consumption/excess and the depletion/waste; the social opportunities and isolation; the capacity to thrive and the quiet decay; the constant activity and the nagging emptiness).

But that image of Peter at the railing is revealing in another way, in the indecipherable boundary between the dark water and the starless sky. Without those strung lights, Peter cannot spot the line: it's darkness everywhere he looks. Throughout the narrative, there are a number of other fine lines that he strains to see.

(If you're interested in more talk about those fine lines, spoiler-free, you can visit BIP here for a longer review.)

It is really the story of a single man, best told in a single man's voice. I think I would have appreciated that more if By Nightfall hadn't been the third in a string of novels that grappled with the same theme: what do we do with our freedom? And yet, the novel complements Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and David Bergen's The Matter with Morris in a rather interesting way.

Isn't it curious how much the timing of a reading can influence your response?