The Middle Years: Michael Cunningham's "By Nightfall"

By Janet FitchMay 25, 2011

By Nightfall

AH, MIDDLE AGE. Ye despised state. So sadly and yet accurately coupled with such terms as spreadcrazy and despair. Middle-age is the arena of Michael Cunningham’s new novel, By Nightfall, which follows a long-married, successful NYC art gallerist, Peter Harris, through a handful of days as he considers exploding his life for the sake of his wife Rebecca’s much younger brother. An “oops” child and a loose cannon (spiritual quests, drug problems), Ethan, known as Mizzy, arrives as a debris-rich injection into the well-run machine of a sophisticated couple’s intricate, busy life. First introduced as a family problem, the boy quickly becomes a very different type of problem for Peter — a troubling attraction. 

While many have commented upon the Death in Venice resemblances — the echoes of which Cunningham’s well-read, wryly self-deprecating protagonist is highly aware — another specter hovers over the novel, one which I found far more resonant: the quintessence of middle-aged Urban Man, Ulysses’ Leopold Bloom. On the very first page, we’re alerted to the possibility of Ulyssean overtones with the mention of “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” in the stream of Peter’s consciousness — a psyche as packed with literary and artistic references as a New York City subway car full of rush-hour commuters.

Like Joyce’s protagonist, Peter Harris is a man caught midstream — not lost in dark woods, but a seasoned traveler tied into life by a million active strands. Imagine a sophisticated Bloom, a successful Bloom, going about his day, not in 1906 Dublin, but in contemporary New York. In the course of his daily rounds, Peter Harris, like Bloom, offers up startlingly apt insights into the nuances of his beloved city and life in middle age, its particular qualities, memories revisited, states and ambivalences. Like his Irish predecessor, Peter exists in his private musings far more than in any particular plotted action. 

With the prospect of Mizzy, Peter finds himself confronting a largely unexamined yearning, a hidden desire which boils over in the form of “middle aged crazy.” For who wants to be Bloom when one can be Stephen Dedalus, and forge the uncreated conscience of one’s race? As art gallerist and culturatus, Peter’s secret dream is to discover an artist who will explode the world — in other words, an already-tamed dream of serving as midwife to ecstasy. Not creator, but midwife. A dream whose ambition itself is already middle-aged, compromised, diminished.

But life has a curve in store for him. The possibility of a grand romance with a wholly unsuitable boy presents Peter with the dangerous opportunity to embody the thing itself — ecstasy, transcendent desire, the fulfillment of which would tear apart everything he has built, his whole carefully orchestrated, carefully balanced mid-life world, in a single moment. The urge to leap is irresistible.

The novel’s essential conflict, then, is the tug of war between a middle-aged man’s generous accommodation to the ordinariness of the world, his accreted Bloomian sense that life’s goodness lies in its small details: a good dinner, a daily relationship, a quiet friendship, a random erotic moment, and the secret part of him that yearns to explode all these accommodations and regimes and wisdoms in favor of ecstasy, pure, direct and unmediated. In religious terms, this is the old dichotomy between immanence, the thought that the divine exists within the small things of this world, and transcendence, the rejection of the material world in favor of a purer spiritual truth. The lovely paradox of the novel is that, in Peter’s final willingness to wager transcendence against immanence, he takes the step which will lead him, at last, into full acceptance of his place in the scheme of ordinary life. 


Beyond the drama, though, the book’s real achievement lies in its portrayal of Peter’s multilayered, contradictory consciousness. I didn’t so much read this book as press it to my nose and mouth like an oxygen mask. Its prismatic interiority is exactly what I needed — a reminder that the airless feedback loop of our social networks and beehivelike interactivity is a thin substitute for the kind of mental life Cunningham depicts so richly — the private life of the adult mind. 

The zeitgeist of the sixties quite convincingly presented a picture of private life as hypocrisy and unexpressed thoughts as toxic. But after forty years of freedom from privacy, the air is getting awfully thin, and I’m experiencing an urgent need to explore this thing called private life, and perhaps even resuscitate its values. We’ve drifted so far from inner life that we actually seem frightened of living unseen by the larger circle of our acquaintances, of holding an unshared thought. We comb our minds for ways to frame experience to make a status line worth updating. Often, it seems, we hardly live life, we’re so busy portraying it. 

What are we doing to ourselves? What is the upshot of this relentless self-display? Well, it turns out to be a rather brutal self-censorship. We read books about “being in the now” and how you attract what you think, we excoriate ourselves for thinking bad thoughts — like Puritans afraid of our own wickedness. We try to edit our many colliding streams and layers of thought into something pure and unitary. In our attempts to portray a unified self, we’ve become inner fascists. All our self-display is causing an odd diminution of personality — we’re cutting ourselves down to mouthsized bites, as if we’re trying to be characters in a book instead of enjoying our living, contradictory personalities. We reject our unpresentable thoughts, our unpublishable thoughts, scold ourselves and try for a clarity and simplicity of which a Scientologist could be proud.

What I admire so much in By Nightfall is the “adultness” of the consciousness through which the book is streamed. Cunningham, like Joyce, celebrates the freedom of the private self to approach the world in unedited style, where a human being can rest and enjoy the full breadth of who he is, knowing that having unlikable thoughts is not the same as being unlikable. 

In a wonderful sequence, Peter Harris has lunch with another art gallerist, Bette, recently recovered from a bout of breast cancer. When Bette phones him on a Sunday, Peter gets the sense that something is not right. And in the lunch that ensues, as she tells him that she’s tired of the rat race, she’s going to close her gallery and move to Italy with her husband, he realizes that the breast cancer is in fact back, and that she’s going to Italy to die. But they both continue to speak as if this truth has not been glimpsed. She puts out a certain story, and he selects from his twining myriad of thoughts only that which would be the most compassionate, most helpful. He keeps the rest to himself. 

Peter’s thoughts, not shaped for public consumption, are often self-admissions which would never pass the Facebook smell-check, such as noticing his beloved wife is no longer beautiful, that he doesn’t love her as much as he did — in that moment at least. In the next moment, he can see her in a light or catch a gesture that reminds him, no, I love her beyond life itself

We have all these thoughts, and the process of selection (call it hypocrisy or compassion) allows us the freedom to acknowledge a whole range of ideas, opinions and reactions about any person, situation or event, and still harm no one. We are free, and yet we still can be good. 


Years ago, I was the unhappy recipient of an acquaintance’s annual Christmas newsletter. The letter spoke in glorious detail about the family’s past year in France, how well the children were doing in French school, the beauty of their villa (the figs, the grapes), not to mention the publications, the awards, the important conferences at which they had spoken, and the other countries to which they’d traveled. How this letter depressed me. I ended up showing it to my therapist, who said, “Ask yourself this — why does she need you to know all this stuff about herself? Why isn’t it enough just to live it?”

It’s a question even more valid now when perhaps a majority of us are sending out these newsletters on a daily basis. “Here’s a picture of my dinner!” Why isn’t it enough just to eat it? Why isn’t the experience sufficient?

We are losing the ability to enjoy our private thoughts, where the privacy of thoughts (messy, contradictory, self-amusing) is part of the pleasure of having them. We talk about privacy issues, but generally, the discussion centers on things like who can see your phone number on Facebook, when really the issue is: how our way of life is changing us as humans and what we are losing in the process. Taking the hit, it seems, is our relationship to the self.

And so, to spend a few hours in the far-ranging honesty of a man’s unedited thoughts as he moves through his day, absorbing his inner admissions of dissatisfaction and failure, the unexpressed criticisms of others, the real but not always adorable thoughts of a loving husband — is to regain that ability and that pleasure of communicating with the self. The freedom! The complexity. The lack of shame. These aren’t the relentlessly desperate, narcissistic, or cynical thoughts displayed by self-conscious young characters in modern hipster novels, but a scintillant range of interlinked mature musings, paradoxically honest, cruel, compassionate, vain, generous, literate and mocking, insightful and self-aware, yearning and humorous and threaded with knowledge of self and the world.

A young person, like Stephen Dedalus, who would not pray at his dying mother’s bedside, feels the need to proclaim his honest thoughts, above all. Saying exactly what he thinks, whether or not it’s destructive. Being true to himself is more important than being constructive, or compassionate, as part of a social whole. 

But a middle-aged person has worked hard in building trust, and is able to withstand the tension of contradictory private thoughts. Midlife people hold up the tent of social existence, having built something they want to continue to nourish and support — intimate relationships, families, friendships, a far-flung web of acquaintanceships professional, social and personal. So the great task of middle age is to be honest with one’s self, while continuing to support the tent. Only a capacious inner life makes that possible.

Currently, there is great popularity to the notion that we should control the stream of inner voices — the “chatter” which, according to our Zen popularists, “is not the true I.” In contrast, By Nightfall celebrates the mental flora that is the mind’s private life, the dense private thoughts that are the seedbed of the self, out of which an authentic life can spring. 

A novel that centers on the life of the mind could not be more important at exactly this time. The novel of consciousness restores to us the important idea that the human psyche should belarger on the inside than on the outside. Which, when you think about it, is also the perfect description of a book.


LARB Contributor

Janet Fitch is a Los Angeles native and the author of White Oleander and Paint It Black. Her latest novel is a two-part epic, The Revolution of Marina M. and Chimes of a Lost Cathedral.


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