Peter and Rebecca Harris form a recognisable kind of Manhattan couple: prosperous but not absurdly rich; middle-aged but hip in a tweedy, Sunday Times-reading way; earnest about their careers in the arts, but pragmatic about their financial motivations. Theirs is an enviable life, but it wouldn’t be a Cunningham novel without a strong dose of sexual confusion to mix things up.
When Ethan – Rebecca’s handsome, charismatic and much younger brother (nicknamed ‘Mizzy,’ as in ‘the mistake’) – comes to crash in the couple’s spare room, Peter begins to spiral into one doozy of a midlife crisis, leading him to question his entire existence. Peter soon finds himself wanting to emulate Mizzy’s ‘young and f*****-up’ lifestyle.
While Cunningham is a master of the wondrously long sentence, By Nightfall adds little new to the worn topic of fortysomething angst. The novel’s obsession with youth is, most likely, intentionally pathetic and overwrought, but that doesn’t make it any less exhausting. Cunningham has gone trigger-happy with the use of hyperbole to describe Mizzy’s youthful perfection: he’s compared to Rodin’s bronze work, Roman coinage and countless other archetypes of male beauty.
By Nightfall won’t make you forget the genius of Cunningham’s earlier books – his insights about ageing, marriage and the state of contemporary art ring true – but it will make you wonder why he bothered to spend his tremendous gifts on this bland, utterly predictable story.