32nd Discussion: Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall (19 Apr)

Moderator: Timmy
Attendees: Raj, Timmy, Victor, Alex, Alexius, Glenn, Amit, Aaron, Har, JM (Coetzee?), Ernest

Although there are some hot scenes (shower scene and straight sex) and although we all agree that the stream of consciousness/monologue is complex, many of us found the novel depressing in its mediations on death, and some of us found it boring.

Themes

1. Autobiography/Art: Aaron argued that the novel is Cunningham’s veiled autobiography on his relationship to art and life, which is why the characters are stock characters and the plot is predictable, and the predictability is what Victor called “a lazy way of writing.” The importance is not in the characters or plot but in objects of art and beauty. For instance, the names of the characters are mostly biblical or famous literary names: Peter, Matthew, Daniel, Rebecca (from Daphne du Maurier); Beatrice (from Dante). Or how the scenes in the novel are straight out from paintings. Or in the chapter “Art History,” Peter mediates that every art show “might have moved a fraction of a centimeter forward. Aesthetics? Art History?…What about the unending effort to find a balance between sentiment and irony, between beauty and rigor, and in so doing open a crack in the subtance of the world through which mortal truth might shine?” (69). This sentence–especially the emphasis on literary terms “sentiment and irony”–is obviously mirroring Cunningham’s thoughts on his craft. Furthermore, Uta says, “Taking on an artist you don’t love who sells a lot of work helps pay for the artists you do love who don’t sell a lot of work” is pointedly talking about the publishing world (before there are literary agents). What the novel is is a mediation of Cunningham in positioning himself in relation to other writers (hence, the extensive intertextural references to other great works of literature like Madame Bovary, Dante, Jane Eyre, etc). But most of the members disagreed with Aaron, thinking the thesis is too far a leap.

2. Sexuality:

a. “Is it possible to be gay for a person?” TImmy asked. Ernest quoted movingly a line straight from Jodi Picoult’s Sing You Home to answer the question.

b. Incest: Alexius brought up that Peter is in love with his brother, Matthew, and Matthew and Mizzy are always naked (theme of corporeality/bodies). Aaron thought the nudity is to emphasize their ethereal nature, a nature untainted by societal norms. Alex claimed with bodies that beautiful, he’d want to walk around naked every opportunity he has too.  Alexius thought the book–in particularly the relationship between the men–emphasizes on Greek love.  Tying part (a) and (b) together, Alex stated that Peter is not in love in men per se but in love with beauty and Peter treats them as art objects. Seen in this way, Raj claimed that the ugly urn symbolizes Peter–an object of ordinary art–while Mizzy is the beautiful urn that substitutes the ugly urn at Carol’s country house.

c. Homophobia: Timmy asked if this novel is homophobic since the gay characters either are manipulative or die of HIV/AIDS. Most of the members said no because the gay characters are portrayed in a sympathetic manner.

3. Sex

a. Alex brought up an interesting point that we didn’t go into: why does the straight sex scene turn us (gay people) on?

b. Alexius asked why there is no sex between Mizzy and Peter. Raj wondered if sex is what is on Peter’s mind while Aaron claimed that if we follow the argument that Mizzy is a piece of art and beauty, one should never touch beauty because one would defile it. Building on, JM said that the purpose of the interior monologue is that art exists in the mind and if it is expressed, art loses that beauty.

Raj likened that: if Peter has sex with Mizzy, it would be like how a torn painting reveals its worthless second-rate painting underneath. Ernest asked why the metaphor sounds like the tearing of hymen. Alexius said, “But there is interactive art. They can interact with each other.”

The unfulfilled desire, Alex argued, is befitting and ties in with the theme of death.

4. Marriage: Mundane existence.

5. Love: Victor explained that Peter reaches for the forbidden fruit.

Characters

1. Peter: Glenn saw Peter as someone who needs to be appreciated for whom he is. JM said that the book is about a mid-life crisis, an urgency to be special; if not, Peter will be like the shark, suspended in mid-life. And being with Mizzy, Alex added, is that something special.

Raj suspected Peter is hallucinating the entire encounter with Mizzy in his head.

2. Mizzy: “A hot scumbag,” according to Alex. While Timmy hated Mizzy for his complete waste of his intelligence and potential, Mizzy is Raj’s favorite character as, according to Raj, Mizzy is manipulative. Aaron, however, cautioned that we are seeing Mizzy from Peter’s point-of-view and Mizzy may not be manipulative. In fact, JM found Mizzy innocent and pitiful because he cannot and doesn’t want to assimilate into society and is thus an outcast.

Alexius couldn’t fathom why Mizzy would fall in love with Peter because, to Alexius, a younger man loves an older man for his security and knowledge. Alexius also disliked that the others continue calling Mizzy Mizzy and not Ethan, because it would reinforce Mizzy’s own mindset.

3. Rebecca: Aaron defended Rebecca when claims were made of her being bland, saying that her personality is inaccessible to us because we are seeing her from Peter’s point of view. She does show sparks of complexity, such as the witnessing of the threesome and seeking revenge for her sister, and calling Peter “Charlie” during sex.  “Why Charlie?” JM asked. Alex replied, “Calling someone else’s name during sex is insulting and may be a turn on. Sex is a mixture of insult, pain and fantasy.” Of course, Alex knows best.

4. Uta: Favorite character of Har, Aaron and Timmy because, as Timmy succinctly puts it, Uta is like Uma Thurman in The Producers, funny, down-to-earth, busty and blonde.

5. Beatrice: “Why does Beatrice hate her dad?” Timmy asked. Har and JM pointed out that she cannot fulfill the potential of the Dantean name. (A parallel could be made of Cunningham’s works in relations to other great works.) Peter cannot get over his superficiality and there is an “unspoken disdain” (Alex’s words).  That’s why Mizzy is a substitution for Rebecca’s and Peter’s parental affections. Raj, Timmy and JM believed that Beatrice is lesbian while Alex and Aaron didn’t. Perhaps the ambiguity is to highlight how un-important sexuality is in a liberal society: we don’t need to know and shouldn’t need to know her sexuality.

Style

1. Monologue: While many of us found the style boring, Har liked the long meditative paragraphs, especially the description of a party, which Alex pointed out, is modeled after Mrs Dalloway. Furthermore, defending the ennui, JM argued that the stream-of-consciousness is to mirror the boredom in Peter’s life.

2. Setting: Raj claimed that the novel ruins New York for him, depicting the city as melancholic, while Aaron thought the descriptions are spot on.

3. Last Chapter: JM liked the way the last chapter ties things up.  Alex liked the endless possibilities of the ending.

4. Motif:

a. The significance of the rare human touch, we discussed, is a signal for human connection.

b. Shark:  Alex noted that Peter has a hubris when he associates himself with the shark. JM said that the shark could be an indication of the fearlessness when facing life and death. Aaron thought the shark represents the terrible beauty that is in the epigraph of the book while Alexis said that the shark could represent Matthew, suspended in his prime.

c. Animals: Prevalent mentioning of animals including death of a horse, which Har brought up, a foreshadowing technique, demonstrating Cunningham’s craft.

5. Doppelganger: Why does everyone melt into everyone else? For instance, Uta has been compared to Rebecca; Mizzy to Rebecca and Matthew; Peter to Bette. JM suggests that perhaps the novel isn’t about the characters, that it’s a story for everyone.

The book club concluded with a sad note, as sad as the book. We usually appreciate the book better after the discussion but not in this case. Har and Amit were the exceptions who liked the novel. Aaron and Alex were neutral. The rest hated it as it is, in Glenn’s, Alexius’s, Timmy’s words, “boring, pretentious, pussified” and in Amit’s words, “fatalistic as the novel sets the characters up to fail.” Ernest won’t be reading the book, fo’ so’.

PS: Thanks, Raj, for hosting us and providing drinks and curry puffs.

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1 Comment

Filed under Class, Family, Gay, HIV/AIDS, Love, Michael Cunningham, USA

One response to “32nd Discussion: Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall (19 Apr)

  1. Pingback: Aaron’s Top 5 GLBTQ Books | Queer Book & Movie Club (Singapore)

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