Michael Cunningham is one of my favorite authors, and his books, The Hours and Specimen Days, are two that I have come back to when I want to think more deeply about the conditions of modern lives. Cunningham’s characters, even when they are outlandish, are humane representations of us, in our most vulnerable, most courageous, and most despicable moments, and I crave the intimate connection with them. I just finished Cunningham’s By Nightfall, and surprisingly, the characters forced me away instead of drawing me into their personalities. They seemed not only remote, but strange (oddly, less strange than the lizard-like creatures who show up in Specimen Days) because they lived incomprehensible lives from my vantage point.
By Nightfall‘s characters are a middle-aged couple with a college-age daughter who is specter-like in her appearance in the novel. Mizzy, the way-ward brother of the wife in the middle-aged couple, is one of Cunningham’s least accessible characters. Mizzy is an indulged youngest child who is manipulative and self-centered, seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction.
Perhaps Cunningham is forcing us to look at our own self-destructive patterns and behaviors, ones that may have less immediate impact than the drug-abusing and drifting life of Mizzy. Frankly, I didn’t like this book, and few weeks since shutting the cover, I wonder if the reason I didn’t like it was that the characters are so flawed that they seem too much like people in my real life, including myself. Despite my rather unassuming life as a school teacher that stands in sharp contrast to Cunningham’s art dealer, New York City dwelling, affluent characters, we share this deeply human flaw: navel-gazing.
It isn’t that I want to let Mizzy off the hook. In fact, By Nightfall‘s release of Mizzy from his inevitable path of navel-gazing to abandonment of social relationships eerily predicts our own possible road. The fact that no one can intervene to help Mizzy, that Peter Harris and his wife are so wrapped up in their own lives that they can’t begin to see beyond them, suggests a reality too close to non-fiction.
I feel little compassion for Mizzy because he indulges his self-importance and because he romanticizes and disguises drifting as soul-searching. Mizzy has never faced obstacles or challenges, and as a result, is mired in narcissistic behavior.
My disconnect from this novel stems from my inability to connect on a soulful level to the characters. Even Peter Harris, the protagonist, unsettled after years of what should have settled him, was a character for whom I could not rouse compassion or empathy. I wonder if Cunningham knew he was pushing his readers away, perhaps purposefully, in order to get us to consider our own peripatetic inner lives. At the end of our wanderings, how well do we know ourselves?
I suppose that blogging itself if a way of looking inward, of examining one’s own navel. So who am I to complain about Michael Cunningham’s character that bring my own so-human foible to the fore. As a blogger gone once again into hibernation, this post, germinating, or possibly decomposing, in my draft box, has released me to the light of day.
Despite my misgivings about Cunningham’s novel, I continue on, finally finishing A Home at the End of the World, a masterpiece that deserves a glowing response, perhaps to come in a few weeks.