Day Needs Reasons Not to Close the Curtain


DAY (2023)

By Michael Cunningham

Random House, 288 pages.






Michael Cunningham is such a great stylist that he could imbue insurance forms with elegance. But would you want to read them? I devoured past works such as The Hours and The Home at the End of the World, but Day reads like a treatment in search of something. What, exactly? Perhaps a likable character?


The novel’s central device/contrivance, is to unpeel the travails of a handful of Brooklynites by visiting the same day, April 5, in three consecutive years: 2019, 2020, and 2021. You might associate 2020 with the darkest days of Covid, including a nationwide lockdown, but why April 5? Good question. Covid is woven into the novel, but its major theme (intended or not) is the sunset of Generation X. That could be rich fodder for a book, but Cunningham squanders lovely prose via dialogue and interactions reminiscent of a Woody Allen movie in which cloying New Yorkers wallow in their neuroses.


Robbie Walker is the novel’s pivot, even when he’s not present. He’s a gay 6th grade teacher who has been unlucky in love, work, and apartments. He is so bonded with his sister Isabel that since childhood they have fashioned tales of Wolfe and Lyla, imaginary alter egos. Robbie lives in the leaky attic of the small brownstone of Isabel, her husband Dan Byrne, and their two children, 10-year-old Nathan and five-year-old Violet. Though everyone loves Robbie, the kids need separate bedrooms. Robbie is burnt out, can’t find an affordable place to live, and can’t imagine being gay outside of the Metro area. (Really? Has he never heard of Northampton, Ogunquit, Provincetown, Key West, or even Manhattan, Kansas?)


Robbie’s not the only character facing 40 with a bagful of blues. Isabel works for an upscale magazine and fears either she or it will fold; Dan is an ex-rocker who came close to making it, but fell short. Addiction didn’t help. He’s trying to shift into sensitive mode, but his dyed locks, wardrobe, and unfulfilled dreams leave him stuck in gear, which doesn’t help pay the mortgage. Dan’s brother Garth was a sperm donor for English professor Chess’s infant son Odin and had the misfortune of falling in love with both of them, though his attraction to misanthropic Chess is hard to fathom. Garth also makes sculptures that bear the names of Shakespeare plays, most of which are abstract and vaguely disturbing. The art world yawns. 


This, mind, is just the 2019 setup, but given the respective levels of self-absorption and discontent, you already have a good idea of where things are headed. In essence, there are five characters who have adult responsibilities without adult mindsets. Such matters are more commonplace these days, but an overabundance of delayed development is neither compelling nor interesting.


Day often toddles, because the characters aren’t written with enough bandwidth to race past their own narcissism. Cunningham is at his sharpest in showing the disintegration of Wolfe and Lyla, who go from Robbie and Isabel’s private support system to a social media phenomenon whose followers can’t discern them as fictive or spot logical inconsistencies. I believe Cunningham wanted us to see how they paralleled “real” life among his principals–Dan’s off/on/off musical career, Garth’s artistic moment, Isabel’s depression, Chess’ emotional numbness– but their respective stases too often stagnates the narrative. Only Robbie steps outside of himself by moving to Iceland. Huh? It sets up something important, but how a guy who thinks living an hour from Greater New York is intolerable decides upon Iceland is baffling.


By the time we get to 2021, everyone is a mess. This includes Nathan, now a surly tween brat, and Violet who is on her way to becoming a prima donna. If we believe Jean Piaget and British director Michael Apted that a child’s basic personality is formed by age 7, the sins of the parents will live on. (I guess we can always root for Odin!) Nonetheless, the shorter third part of the novel is where Cunningham is most affecting. By shifting decisively to tragedy, he hones a sharp edge that induces pathos rather than annoyance. I wonder, though, how many readers will have closed the curtains upon Day before they get there. Cunningham writes too well to call it a failed novel, but I doubt few will call it a notable one.


Rob Weir


Closer: Mike Nichols Carnal Knowledge II?


Closer (2004)

Directed by Mike Nichols

Columbia Pictures, 104 minutes, R (nudity, sex, adult situations)




Director Mike Nichols died in 2014. He excelled as a Hollywood auteur who probed identity issues and the complexities of adu
lt life, as he did in Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and The Graduate (1967). In 1971, he waded into the destructiveness of lust in Carnal Knowledge, a film considered scandalous in its day for its unbridled discussions of sex. In numerous ways, Closer is Carnal Knowledge II set three decades later.


On a crowded London street, novelist Dan Woolf (Jude Law with hair) notices an alluring dye-job redhead smiling as she walks toward him. Their eyes lock a moment too long and she is knocked down by a vehicle. She is bruised and bleeding; Woolf (note the surname) hails a cab and takes her to the hospital. She’s an American stripper who gives her name as Alicia Ayres (Natalie Portman). Soon the two are living together, though Alicia is younger and innocent, her occupation notwithstanding.


Dan has a roving eye, however. At a book jacket photo shoot he puts the moves on shutterbug Anna Cameron (Julia Roberts). She’s married, but nonetheless passionately kisses Daniel. He also enjoys trolling online sex chat rooms, where he poses as a woman and revels in his puppet-string power over men on the other end. That’s how dermatologist Larry Gray (Clive Owen) enters the picture. Dan tells Larry his name is “Anna” and arranges a rendezvous the next day at the aquarium. It’s a sick setup as he knows that Anna Cameron will be there. After an awkward approach, Larry and Anna chat and are attracted to each other. Fast forward and Anna is divorced and married to Larry.


Don’t expect syrupy endings from Mike Nichols. Closer is a double pas de deux in which Dan pursues Anna, Larry pursues Alicia, marriages are made and broken, and the cycle repeats. Dan and Larry are soon trapped in a don’t love the one you’re with game; when one is with Anna he longs again for Alicia and vice versa. If it seems a dirty male fantasy, don’t jump to conclusions. Nichols lets no one off the hook, so it’s never clear who is calling the shots, who is a willing victim, or who is crossing whom. Alicia, for instance, does seem a child at times–Larry says as much–but then again, in between partners she bares it all in a sex club and acts like a polite dominatrix.


In essence, everything and everybody looks one way on the surface, but might be something else altogether. Nichols cleverly parallels the narrative with two pieces of soundtrack music, Mozart’s 1790 opera Cosí fan tutte and Damien Rice’s “The Blower’s Daughter.”  Mozart’s work translates “so do they,” by which he meant women. So do they what? Exactly! “The Blower’s Daughter” is an enigmatic song about a woman who is a clarinet teacher who also works in a call center. A little Freud anyone?


Closer was a hit with critics and did well at the box office because it rolled out when Julia Roberts was at the peak of celebrity fame. Audiences were more tepid in their post-viewing assessment of the film because it is, to say the least, not exactly an endorsement of healthy relationships. Marketers also erred in labeling it a romantic drama. There’s plenty of drama, but are we watching romance or simply the fulfillment of lust du jour?  


Roberts and Owen shine brightly in the film, with Portman a small step behind. When the camera zooms in on her face, Roberts is absolutely luminous. She also casts an air of a woman in charge–even when she’s not. Owen is at his arch best and brandishes words as if they were an eviscerating sword. Law, though, is arguably too whiny and wimpy to be fully convincing when he tries to turn Machiavellian.


The film suffers at times from being more antiseptic than appealing­–as if Nichols is dissecting the psyches and egos of four intensely unlikable people. There are so many ulterior motives that it could be seen as a tale of four adrift amatorcultists. The film’s ending is a riff off that The Usual Suspects, which came out a decade earlier.


If you have seen Carnal Knowledge, consider Closer a companion piece. If you’ve not, watch them both for their ensemble acting. Then take a shower!


Rob Weir