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Review: By NightFall by Michael Cunningham

If you were trying to convert your boyfriend to chick flicks, you probably wouldn't start him off with the film of Michael Cunningham's 1998 novel, The Hours.

Likewise, if you were selling literary fiction to a sci-fi or chick-lit reader, Cunningham's books would be a bad place to start. His fiction is everything that serious literature-phobes hate: packed with arty types, cultural allusions and introspective monologues.

Set in the Manhattan art world, By Nightfall has many of the themes that Cunningham's fans relish. Peter Harris is a forty-something art dealer, father of an averagely screwed-up daughter and tolerably happy with his wife, Rebecca. Or at least, tolerably unhappy; but "What couple isn't unhappy, at least part of the time?"

A beautiful, chapter-long flashback (a Cunningham-esque trope) recalls a childhood holiday, when Peter watched his gay older brother in a lake with a beautiful girlfriend and experienced a defining moment of love and youth: "a pure, thrilling, and slightly terrifying apprehension of what he will later call beauty." His brother later died of AIDS -- a loss with which Peter is tolerably obsessed.

An edgy triangle is set up from the outset when Rebecca's feckless, drug-addicted younger brother comes to stay. His name is Ethan, but they call him Mizzy. Peter interrupts Mizzy in the shower, having mistaken the steamy outline for his wife's, and from this point, events spiral unconvincingly out of control. Listening to Mizzy masturbating in the next room, Peter contemplates: "Isn't this part of what you keep looking for in art -- rescue from solitude and subjectivity . . . the human mystery simultaneously illuminated and deepened." Well yes, either that or you're just an old perv.

There are subtle, tender moments here about art, ageing and disappointment, but they are nearly lost amid the navel-gazing. This is an interesting novel of ideas; but don't inflict it on your boyfriend.

Indo Review