Michael Cunningham: Time's Arrow
By Tim Murphy
Several years ago, shortly after his 1998 novel, The Hours, won the Pulitzer Prize, Michael Cunningham wanted to walk away from his life. 'I just thought, I don't want to do this anymore,' says the movie-star handsome writer, 57, sipping water on a cloud-scudded day on the upper deck of his beach house, perched above the bay in Provincetown, Mass. 'I don't want to be married, I don't want to write -- I don't want anything I've got anymore. I'm tired of it. You get overly accustomed to your life, and you want to shake it up, feel the way you felt when you were 20 -- that anything could happen.'
Cunningham, who lives in New York City most of the year, didn't walk away. 'I just couldn't do it because I love Kenny too much,' he says, referring to psychologist Ken Corbett, his lover of the past 24 years. Plus, says Cunningham, he accepted he was a writer for life, though he acknowledges, 'There's always the possibility that I could become a jeweler.' In fact, this afternoon, he wears, in addition to an old ripped gray tank top and jean shorts emblazoned with a homemade peace sign, two oxidized silver chains he made himself. 'I want to make things that aren't going to be critiqued or compared to my last embroidered peace sign or little necklace,' he says.
Cunningham's novels have long explored the intense push and pull of intimate relationships, the desire to 'shake things up' that makes us want to walk away from them, and the fear and, yes, love and pleasure that keep us in them. It was a theme that drove his acclaimed 1990 novel, A Home at the End of the World, and it certainly weighed heavily on The Hours, where, in all three of its ingeniously linked stories, set in different eras, characters are compelled to walk away from their lives. (Some do, some don't.) 'That's a natural human urge,' says Cunningham.
But in his sixth novel, By Nightfall, published this month, he applies that impulse for the first time to a straight male protagonist: Peter Harris, a charming, handsome, successful 40-something New York City art gallery owner whose career and longtime marriage to Rebecca, a lovely literary magazine editor, is imperiled when he becomes obsessed with Mizzy, Rebecca's beautiful, polysexual, ne'er-do-well drug-addict younger brother, who comes to stay with them. 'It started as a riff on Death and Venice, which is one of my favorite books,' says Cunningham, referencing the classic Thomas Mann novel about an older man who fixates on a gorgeous adolescent boy. 'I was interested in an eroticized obsession that wasn't quite as simple as a gay guy coming to terms with his true sexuality.' (Indeed, in the new novel, it's often hard to tell whether Peter is really gay or projecting all sorts of desires -- for his wife when she was young, for his own fading youth -- onto Mizzy, or both.) 'But Aschenbach' -- from Death in Venice -- 'ends up dead on a beach with makeup and a bad dye job,' says Cunningham, 'and Peter ends up rather differently.' Before the bittersweet, shrewdly observed novel resolves, however, Peter and Mizzy do end up kissing while wading in Long Island Sound, the enormous house of one of Peter's rich clients looming behind them.
What was it like for Cunningham, who for more than 20 years has been known for charting the inner emotional terrain of gay people and/or women, to write in the voice of a straight male? 'A little bit like writing about women,' he says. 'Not as much of a stretch as you might think. There are questions of character that are deeper than gender and sexual orientation which, at the level I'd have to call the soul, just don't matter.' Plus, he says, for many years he was especially close with a straight married man. 'We'd talk about our mates and complain about our lives,' he says, 'and I began to understand that his feelings about his wife were much closer to my life with Kenny than, say, the life of a certain gay friend who only sucks off guys who hurt him. I've always been married -- a one-man guy.'