Michael Cunningham’s novels have tended to be airy, open structures, covering large spans of time and space. They are narrative experiments, multivoiced and wide-ranging, with a romantic sense of the adventure of the inner life and a brilliant eye for the details of the everyday world; it is not surprising that Virginia Woolf has been so important a presence for this midwestern New Yorker. In A Home at the End of the World (1990) he followed three very different misfits from childhood to maturity, from Cleveland to New York City and then to the broken-down upstate farmhouse where they define themselves, perilously and poignantly, as a kind of polymorphous family. They tell the story in turns, a play of subjectivities.
The Hours (1998), like its template Mrs. Dalloway, unfolds over one day, but it refracts that day through different periods and places—Virginia Woolf’s Richmond in 1923, Laura Brown’s Los Angeles in 1949, Clarissa Vaughan’s Manhattan in “the late twentieth century.” Across seventy years and thousands of miles three women’s lives are given a mysterious harmonic resonance, reinforced by the bold pastiche of Woolf’s stream of consciousness in which the novel is written. In Specimen Days (2005), Cunningham’s wildest experiment, three disjunct periods are handled through the conventions of three distinct genres: the Victorian ghost story, the contemporary police thriller, and the futuristic sci-fi dystopia. Here the presiding literary presence is a different kind of poet of the self, Walt Whitman, his words channeled by a nineteenth-century child visionary and adopted as arcane mantras by twenty-first-century child suicide bombers.
If Specimen Days, enjoyable though it was, seemed an adventure too far, Cunningham’s new novel By Nightfall is by contrast disconcertingly conventional in subject and technique. It is seen entirely through one consciousness, takes place in and around New York City, and unfolds over a period of a few days (albeit bulked out with substantial flashbacks). Its main character, Peter Harris, is a middle-aged second-rank contemporary art dealer, his wife Rebecca is a magazine editor, and the novel’s social milieu is largely middle-class. Cunningham has reined in his keen and compassionate social sense to concentrate on a small and perhaps less original canvas. His great gifts are everywhere apparent—the wonderfully exact notation of feelings and sensations and appearances, the observant lyricism, the elegant wit—but the cumulative impact of the novel is oddly muted.
It’s true that Peter Harris himself is dissatisfied with the limitations of a world whose comforts he nonetheless values. As an art dealer he lives in a complex but confined space between commerce and creativity, fashion and idealism. He longs for the transcendence that he sees as the gift of art itself—he sees his job, for all its inevitable disappointments, as “the unending effort to find a balance between sentiment and irony, between beauty and rigor, and in so doing open a crack in the substance of …