Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

CUNNINGHAM'S NEW YORK BY NIGHTFALL

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After the runaway success of his fourth novel, The Hours, a post-modern rendering of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway set partially in New York, Michael Cunningham was in a bind. Pressure was strong to produce something just as original and powerful, a feat many considered impossible. Yet, in a way, he met the challenge with Specimen Days, a cross between a Victorian ghost story, a contemporary thriller and speculative fiction, this time set almost entirely in New York. Nobody could say it wasn’t original or memorable. The book challenged readers without trying to placate them, and thus Cunningham made the journey across that most perilous of bridges, the one of being eclipsed by his own success.

Cunningham’s recently released By Nightfall is his sixth novel. (I learned this fact on Wikipedia, to my surprise. Nowhere on the flyleaf of any other Cunningham novel can I find mention of his debut title, which seems to have been hidden away in the attic like some feeble-minded Victorian relative.) This is the book most of us were expecting to follow The Hours, a softer, less spectacular tale of ordinary people contemplating their ordinary lives in contemporary New York. It subtly and not so subtly combines traces of The Great Gatsby, Death In Venice and once again, Mrs. Dalloway , among others.

Cunningham’s literary predecessor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote of New York with a stark ambivalence. Before his final disillusionment with the east coast, Gatsby’s Nick Caraway proclaims the city held the “first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” In The Beautiful and Damned, however, protagonist Anthony Patch decries New York as “chaotic, unintelligible” and a “mountebank.”

While Cunningham is not quite so extreme, unlike many New York writers he doesn’t make the city sound as if it’s the centre of the universe. Thankfully, he too came from “away” (he’s a mid-westerner) and presumably knows it’s not. Geocentricity is fine for people who live in the places they write about, but for those of us who don’t believe everything good and great lies on the far side of the Verrazano Bridge, we also don’t want to feel the author regards us as losers for not thinking that way.

Like Nick Caraway, By Nightfall’s protagonist Peter Harris finds himself surrounded by mind-boggling wealth, which he caters to by selling art. There is no Jay Gatsby on his horizon, however (or even next door across a patch of lawn), just a lot of smaller fry trying to become something bigger in the City of Giants. Harris knows he is not one of New York’s elite, merely part of the fringe set that follows in its wake, like seagulls trailing a fishing boat waiting for scraps.

In many ways, New York has become the brightest, if somewhat tawdry, star of Cunningham’s firmament. Nevertheless, his writing about it is always graceful and stylish. Some may find this book a less weighty version of The Hours, or, having seen the breadth of Cunningham’s artistry, they may simply find it another facet of his unique and fascinating talent, once again set in the city that seems to be his most resonant source of inspiration.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Jeffrey Round

Jeffrey Round is an award-winning writer and director. His most recent novel is The Honey Locust.

Go to Jeffrey Round’s Author Page