In the mail today: Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, in trade paperback from the good folks at Picador. From novelist Jeanette Winterson’s review of the hardback edition, printed last year in the NYT—
Cunningham has taken on the classic plot of the uninvited or unexpected stranger or guest whose arrival brings chaos, self-knowledge, tragedy, the ruin of one kind of life that may or may not lead to something better. It’s a story we know from variants as classic as Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” to Mark Twain’s “Mysterious Stranger” to contemporary versions like “The Accidental” by Ali Smith. Cunningham is drawn to simple, potent plots (think of the triptych in “The Hours”), saving his energy for the hearts and minds, the groins and guts, of his characters. Yet he makes you turn the pages. He tells a story here, but not too much of a story. You aren’t deadened by detail; you’re eager to know what happens next.
Cunningham writes so well, and with such an economy of language, that he can call up the poet’s exact match. His dialogue is deft and fast. The pace of the writing is skilled — stretched or contracted at just the right time. And if some of the interventions on art are too long — well, too long for whom? For what? Good novels are novels that provoke us to argue with the writer, not just novels that make us feel magically, mysteriously at home.A novel in which everything is perfect is a waxwork. A novel that is alive is never perfect.