Michael Cunningham Explores Sexuality in New Novel


The Paris Review interviews Michael Cunningham about his new novel By Nightfall, about a married NYC gallery owner who begins to fall for the younger brother of his wife:

PARIS REVIEW: At one point, Peter says, “I don’t know. I mean, how could I love another guy and not be gay?” “Easy,” says Uta. Why is it easy?

CUNNINGHAM: Human sexuality is tremendously complicated, so much so that the designations “gay,” “straight,” and “bisexual” are all but meaningless. How many of us have had crushes, and even sexual experiences, with people who fall outside our official “erotic category”? Okay, not everyone, but many of us. I’m interested in sexuality that falls outside the official lines of demarcation. As is Uta.

The seed of By Nightfall was really Mann’s Death in Venice. Although I didn’t want to rewrite Death in Venice, I’ve always been fascinated by Aschenbach’s fascination with Tadzio, which is eroticized but not exactly sexual; it’s more about Aschenbach’s love of youth and beauty and ephemerality. If it was just a book about an old letch hungering for a young boy, what good would it be? I wanted to write about an essentially straight guy who finds himself powerfully drawn not only to a boy but to what the boy represents. If Peter had simply become obsessed with a girl, the story would have been too conventional.

Looking forward to starting this novel.


  1. crispy says

    Cunningham’s last novel was so gawd-awful horrible, this book would have to include explicit sex scenes between Ryan Gosling and Grant Bowler to get me to read it.

  2. Sean says

    It’s been on my Kindle since its release, and I can’t wait to read it, but am just now in the opening chapters of “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese.

  3. tcw says

    I bet at least one of the Latin King Goonies, of Bronx torture house fame, had previously ‘explored his sexuality’ with a male. A lot of good that did the gay men in his life.

    Isn’t Cunningham celebrating the wrong person in this novel – the man who carries on a secret crush or affair with another man, while refusing to be counted as gay or bi? Isn’t the person deserving of celebration precisely the person who does stand up and get counted?

  4. TANK says

    “so much so that the designations ‘gay,’ ‘straight,’ and ‘bisexual’ are all but meaningless.”

    So this is false. What’s with their anti-empirical desire to turn away from reality in favor of a preferred worldview? Hmmmm, sounds like religion to me.

  5. Homo Critical says

    “If Peter had simply become obsessed with a girl, the story would have been too conventional.” It would have been called “Lolita.”

    None of this sounds new. Chris Isherwood, to name just one, have covered the old boy/girl switheroo. When a man loves another man that’s the very definition of gay. Just because the other man is young and hot doesn’t give you an out.

    The only way I would read Cunningham is if he gets very good reviews. The subject sounds trite.

  6. Dave L says

    I agree with Tank. It reminds me of a line from Doctor Who when he said (paraphrased) Sexuality is a quaint and outdated concept from the 20th century. As long as it’s love, who cares?

    When we’re there, it would be great if the whole concept of sexuality were simply a misreading of our natures. But in the mean time too many want to explore and consummate their same sex attractions but not self-identify as gay simply to avoid the baggage of the label. They want to be gay without being called gay. I call foul on that. We do all the work fighting for his same sex acceptance while he just denies us and takes all the fun.

    I’m reminded of another line, this time from Torch Song Trilogy. Just once I want to meet a man who sneaks out on his boyfriend to hook up with his girlfriend.

    Now if his book had been about an openly gay man who gets a crush on his husband’s little sister. That might actually be interesting.

  7. Distingue Traces says

    Oh dear.

    I am fond of Michael Cunningham, but this supposedly “outside the boundaries” romance sounds like a very tired gay cliche — and a transparent exercise in wish fulfillment.

  8. nick says

    I find this whole post-gay conversation tired at best and dangerous at worst. When we have worldwide full equality, people can drop the labels. Until then, I want to hear the labels said aloud. And to be honest, I just don’t believe men’s sexuality is all that fluid. I’ve met thousands of straight and gay men over the past 30+ years of my adulthood and maybe 4 or 5 swing both ways. That’s out of thousands. I’m not saying these people don’t exist, but I’m sick of people saying everyone is bisexual. And I’m sick of characters from film or novels labeling themselves as heterosexual, and then dabbling in gay sex. No thanks. I won’t be reading this book. It already wreaks of privilege.

  9. TANK says

    It’s just stupid. Even after we win global equality, orientation isn’t going to stop existing. Call yourself a giraffe if you want…who cares…but it ain’t true.

  10. violence survivor says

    I totally lost respect for this guy after reading that he enjoys torture porn. For me that’s a deal-breaker for him both as an author and as a person.

  11. TANK says

    popopopopopopomo…some of the jargon folks like judith butler and other “esteemed” a priori “social theorists” use can best be pronounced with a stutter… But don’t you dare call them out on it, you white penis having oppressor!

    Man, a lot of humanities departments have become the repositories of all the world’s bad philosophy. And “literary culture” is infected with this lit crit crap…baby jingles is spitting up again…how “transgressive” and edgy! It spoke to my spiritual thingy… With the exception of david foster wallace (who at least understood the difference between sound thinking and finely spun bullshit), the literary mind has been dying for a while. RIP DFW…you were. Hell of a loss.

  12. asdf says

    I just figured out who Tank is… he’s that fugly long-haired MIT dick that Matt Damon spanks in Good Will Hunting. How you like them apples?!

    And now you will all picture this douchebag when you scan one of Tank’s snobbish, bullying posts. You’re welcome.

  13. TANK says

    totally, asdf… Because I belong to the crowd who wears their degree and alma on their sleeve, and constantly seeks to belittle the “common man,” and goes along, lockstep with self satisfied academics who have no connection to the world outside of their petty departments and ideologically driven research programmes. You called it!

  14. dramaticartchild says

    I have to echo several folk’s statements on here. When gays (excuse me, men who have sexual attraction to other men, sorry) aren’t being tortured in the Bronx and getting stomped on (literally)on School Buses in Long Island and committing suicide in middle America and millions of people across the world don’t want us dead and we can get married to the person we love . .then we can all drop the f-ing labels. People who think this is a “post-gay” world don’t realize that for many others, that is literally true. . .they’d like to see a world where same-sex attraction is a thing of the past. The next time some hipster blurts out the whole “labels are so passe” thing I might just lose my cool once and for all.

  15. says

    Let’s get this clear;
    I’m gay. Not post modern, not post sexual, not bi, and my sexuality is not “tremendously complicated”…..in fact it’s quite simple; I never have sex with females, just males. That’s no crushes on females or any attraction whatever to them.
    What’s “tremendously complicated” about that ?
    And it’s not a “line of demarcation”; it’s my form of loving.
    Please stop turning me into a “complicated” noun.

  16. Andy H says

    If anyone who enjoys reading novels is still following this thread…The novel ‘By Nightfall’ is much more interesting than whatever was said in that snippet from the Paris Review. I’m a pretty demanding reader and I wasn’t sure I was going to like it at first, but I always try to give a book the benefit of the first 50 pages, and now I’m glad I did – I’m getting drawn in by that old magic, the story and where is it going? Books are like people, you have to decide whether you like them by taking the time to get to know them. The knowledge you pick up has to be concrete, it has to be instinctive and ‘right-brain’, and it has to extend over days to be fair and real.

  17. says

    I’ve actually read the book, so I just wanted to pipe in and say that I think the criticism of Cunningham’s last book shouldn’t deter you from reading this one, nor should the so-called “Po-Mo sexuality” turn you away, either. The insight that the book was inspired by DEATH IN VENICE is a bit revealing, but the book itself is worth the read, if only for the unique style and narration. I, too, find the whole “past labels” argument to be idealized and a bit premature, but the book isn’t suggesting that everyone adopt that label (ironic, no?), but it’s an interesting look at someone who may be adopting it for himself.

  18. TANK says

    Most people are trying to fuck their mothers by proxy! GET OVER IT!

    Smirnoff ice sucks! GET OVER IT!

    Sam Adams Octoberfest is the shit! GET OVER IT!

    Soup is good food! GET OVER IT!

    Laura Bush is a battered wife. GET OVER IT!

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