Sigrid Nunez has just published a new novel, What Are You Going Through?, which I'm just now reading. Its female narrator faces and reflects on the ending of a life, as did the narrator of her previous novel, The Friend. I went back to reread my notes on that thought-provoking book and decided to publish them on my blog, in case any of you are also tempted to dip into Nunez' uniquely appealing prose!
The Friend. Sigrid Nunez. 2018. N.Y.: Riverhead: Penguin.
National Book Award for Fiction, 2018.
The first-person narrator of this winner of the 2018 National Book Award for fiction is a woman perhaps in her 60's, a writer and college teacher of writing. She recounts her reactions to and life after the suicide of a close "friend" and earlier, short-term lover. She often slips into the second person, speaking to the dead friend, who remains nameless, as do all creatures appearing in the book except for Apollo, the friend’s statuesque Great Dane, whom she is persuaded to "adopt" by her deceased friend's most recent spouse, "Wife Three." Divided into 12 "Parts," the book is perhaps the story of a year of coming to terms with this death, but also with other aspects of her life. Through details of her daily life and her reflections (including many literary references and quotations) she implicitly chronicles her grieving – and healing? – process. (I recall The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s account of mourning her husband’s death; Nunez is infinitely more subtle and wonderful, however.)
Though the characters remain nameless, many names are dropped throughout this meandering text, names and brief quotes of authors, thinkers through the ages. The narrator recounts some days and encounters in great detail, and reflects on certain themes throughout. Almost as though by association, she brings in pertinent quotes, on death, suicide, writing, male behavior. German authors are favored too: Rilke, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Kleist. But also, quite relevantly, Coetzee’s Disgrace, whose protagonist loses his career and previous privileged life after having come on to a young female student.
Among the – literary, intellectual – pleasures of the book are these sprinklings of quotations throughout. From a psychological perspective, we might also view them as attempts to understand, to cope, bring on the troops, stave off emotional collapse. And also as a way of distancing oneself from what one is feeling. But ultimately, I think, they are an important part of her intellectual (and emotional) reserves, equipment. Her narrative gradually reveals more about her own mind and perceptions through these allusions.
We learn that the Friend was a womanizer, had 3 wives, seemed addicted to being desired by younger students. A very familiar pattern. She seems to be seeking to understand his choice, for which he had given no clues or signs ahead of time. Except that he had told her he was quitting teaching. Was he reacting to the inevitable rejections he would increasingly receive with his aging body? Coetzee again comes to mind. She doesn’t actually follow up on this interrogation explicitly. (Though later on she brings up Kleist and his suicide.) She reflects on suicide in general.
Her reflections often seem to follow her own daily (or monthly) life, her work, amazed shock at the ignorance and superficiality of her writing students. The dilemma posed by taking the dog in an apartment building where no pets are allowed. Like my own sister, she manages to get Apollo certified as an “emotional support dog” – an unspoken acknowledgment of what he really is. One Part consists in meditations, reflections, quotes on dogs, on animals in general: do they have understanding, feelings; can they communicate with humans?
Another Part has to do with her therapy, which friends have persuaded her to undertake. She had begun to withdraw from life. Another: her gradual bonding with Apollo – he sleeps next to her, he loves to hear her read aloud.
Part 11 describes an imaginary encounter with the friend, magically not dead, having been rescued at the last moment. He reveals himself in her perceptive imagination as egotistic and unworthy of idealization. She has apparently finally achieved a more realistic assessment.
Instead of writing to the “you” of her dead friend, in the last Part she writes to the ”you” of the aging Apollo, caring for him in spite of his infirmities, preparing for his (and her own?) death with increasing acceptance. She seems to have healed from the trauma of the original loss.
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