New Books: Michael Cunningham and Ian Frazier

In this week's roundup of great reads: Michael Cunningham tackles middling middle age, and Ian Frazier, chronicler of empty spaces, explores the vastness of Siberia.

10.23.10 7:43 AM ET

By NightfallBy Michael Cunningham

John Keats’ “truth and beauty” have surfaced in many a writer’s works—most recently, the poet Anne Carson ( The Beauty of the Husband) and novelist Ann Patchett ( Truth & Beauty). Now, Michael Cunningham’s spectacular new novel, By Nightfall, takes a crack at that theme from Ode on a Grecian Urn.

Peter and Rebecca Harris are an averagely very successful New York couple (but being so, perhaps aren’t so attuned to their own good fortune), and have raised a smart but homely daughter, Bea, who attends Boston College. Peter has an art gallery, and Rebecca runs an arts magazine, Blue Light—in keeping with the times, the publication is completely on the skids. Then there’s Mizzy—the “mistake” whose nickname is as much a mark of the past as it is a harbinger—Rebecca’s little brother, a brilliant, druggie Adonis, barely older than Bea.

Mizzy embodies beauty, as Peter’s tragic misfortune will have it; the truth upends his life and, regularly throughout the book, the contents of his stomach. To great effect, Cunningham plays with the correspondence between the corporeal and the emotional.

By Nightfall reaches its zenith as Peter is hitting bottom; the writing is painful, funny, and perfect. One particularly sad, hilarious scene is a memory Peter has of his adolescent love, a Midwestern beauty who comes along on family vacation. Peter takes the opportunity to wallow in his adulation:

“He not only sniffed the bikini bottoms she’d slung over the porch rail to dry… but, with the queasy disregard of an alcoholic at a dinner party, put them over his head. Yes, he felt life cracking open all around him, and yes there were times when he wished Joanna would go away because he wasn’t certain he could bear his own deep knowledge… that he was and would always be a little boy with a bikini bottom stretched over his head, and that as intoxicating as these days of Joanna were they were also the beginning of a lifelong, congenital disappointment.”

That little boy with bikini bottoms stretched across his head grows up into the central character and limited viewpoint for By Nightfall, which unfolds largely in the present, and by dialogue. No coincidence that it conjures up the feeling of a script: Cunningham has written successful screenplays for his own books, The Hours and A Home at the End of the World, and Evening, with Susan Minot.

Cunningham harvested the fertile fields of literature du jour: the middling middle age, in the here and now, of urbane (or drop the “e” if you wish) America; Claire Messud and Jonathan Franzen have duly demonstrated just how plentiful that terrain is.

By Nightfall impresses a sense of mourning for the intangible, somehow linking it back to those twin Keatsian themes. Fittingly enough, an actual urn materializes toward the end of the book. Remarks one character, “It’s so beautiful and nasty.”

Claire Howorth, Arts Editor, The Daily Beast

Travels in Siberia By Ian Frazier

In 1989, Ian Frazier established himself as the foremost chronicler of America’s big and empty spaces with Great Plains, his on-the-ground account of America’s flyover space. His new book ups the ante: The land Frazier covers in Travels in Siberia “takes up one-twelfth of all the land on earth,” plains so vast that people used to say they exceeded the total surface area of the moon.

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Frazier manages these enormous landscapes by rooting out their smallest, most intimate parts and personalities. He devotes paragraphs to the things most travelers overlook: a roadside memorial for Stalin’s victims among a heap of trash; a real-estate agent in Alaska who dreams of a New Year’s cruise across the Bering Strait; a harpoon in the ground of an unpopulated tundra, commemorating lost whalers.

His narrative is aided by some of the old saws that travel writers have always turned to for comic relief: a lemon of a car and two stern travel guides who lose plenty in translation. Still, the narrative sags sometimes beneath the weight of the history Frazier piles on it. At times, he struggles to integrate this history into the travelogue and so the reader is left with long historical chapters written in Frazier’s associative style, which can be a bit hard to wrap your head around.

But don’t let this deter you from picking up Travels in Siberia. It’s filled with Frazier’s comic observations—temperatures so cold that “if the wind caught me square in the face it almost flash-froze my eye”; a Russian consonant so difficult to speak that “I had to sit down hard in a chair as I pronounced it.” Frazier’s book is free of grand pronouncements. “In actual travel situations, however, I’ve noticed that moments of soaring consciousness are rare,” he writes. Instead Frazier builds from the ground up; the emptiness at the heart of Russia has rarely felt so cozy.

Ben Crair, Deputy News Editor, The Daily Beast

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