What Happens at Night is the latest masterpiece from Peter Cameron, a brazenly literary writer whose quietly ambitious novels and stories have for decades chronicled the frustrations and complications born from desire, as his often-troubled characters struggle toward true connection. And while his previous books have most often explored relationships between gay men, both with each other and with their own selves, this new novel—suspenseful and almost hallucinatory—is at least at first glance a departure in terms of subject and setting, but thankfully not in style.
The novel tells the maybe-speculative and always hauntingly atmospheric story of an unnamed man and woman, the latter fighting what is likely to be a losing battle with cancer, on a journey to a similarly unnamed country in northern Europe in order to adopt a child. What Happens at Night opens with the man looking out the window of a train at a bright snowy landscape just as it plunges suddenly into the darkness of a forest, and the reader, too, has been transported right from the start into a world of shadow. The magical quality of Cameron’s prose comes is tethered to a precise language of interior reality rather than specificity of place, and the cold, bleak city where his characters arrive in the masterful opening chapter is as vaguely described as its characters’ emotional states are exhaustively chronicled.
On his first night at the hotel where the couple will be staying as they complete the necessary steps to retrieve their child, an older woman who the man meets at the bar while his wife rests in their room upstairs asks him whether he has made the long journey to the city for the healer or for the orphanage. “The orphanage,” he replies immediately, before then inquiring about the healer, thinking of his sick wife. And both destinations will soon emerge as critical points around which the story will orbit, as other strange characters drift in and out like actors in a stage play, disappearing behind the curtain only to reemerge later playing an entirely different role.
Cameron renders his images delicately and purposefully, allowing odd and memorable details to accrue into a kind of mosaic—but this is a mosaic that has been left deliberately incomplete, the missing pieces all the more glaring and unsettling for their absence. No truth can be taken for granted as such, and events often take place off the page in order to instill a sense of disorientation in the reader to match that of the novel’s characters. And many important moments in the narrative happen in the dark, as if to crowd the emotional depth of the story with too many physical details would be unseemly—or perhaps to heighten the sense of unreality, to highlight the perpetual presence of danger. “It’s what happens at night,” says the older woman at the bar in the opening chapter, a theatrical and disarmingly wise lounge singer named Livia Pinheiro-Rima who becomes central to the story as she meddles with the couple’s intentions in irrevocable ways. “People disappear. Or they’re not even there in the first place.”
As the third-person narration vacillates between the viewpoints of the man and the woman throughout, the various tensions between them escalate, and What Happens at Night comes to explore breakdowns in communication more generally, the foreignness of the setting and the incomprehensibility of the native language standing in as literal manifestations of its inhabitants’ inherent unknowability, sometimes even to themselves. The initial goals of the novel’s protagonists become complicated by diversions that reveal layers of grief and longing that are almost incommunicable, how deeply and sharply they are felt. And all action becomes motivated in the end by a submission to the inevitable, a relinquishing of personal agency:
“The thing to remember is that we’re all lost,” said Livia Pinheiro-Rima. “We’re living in a dark time. No one can find their way. Everyone’s fumbling, blindly fumbling. Like those little underground animals who sightlessly push themselves through the cold damp earth, hoping to encounter the root of something edible. We’re no better than that.”
But if Cameron paints a picture that’s sometimes as bleak as the landscape against which the events of What Happens at Night are cast, there’s also the promise of an eventual arrival at a place of hope—or maybe what could be better described as acceptance, a way to live with the wisdom that has now been so agonizingly hard-earned. The train eventually leaves the forest in the end, the view from the window suddenly bright and clear. And the final line of this brilliant gift of a novel is a punch to the gut, as well as an almost Rilkean call to action.
What Happens at Night
By Peter Cameron
Published August 4, 2020
Richard Scott Larson is a queer writer and critic. Born and raised in the suburbs of St. Louis, he studied literature and film at Hunter College in Manhattan and earned his MFA from New York University. He has recently received fellowships from MacDowell and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and he is an active member of the National Book Critics Circle.