By James Draney
Novels, she says, should provide a “vision of life” rather than a “fascinated horror” of it.
Mid-way through Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through? (2020), the narrator finds herself discussing the state of contemporary fiction with a friend who is dying of cancer. This is no idle chat for these two literary women. For them, to speak of writing is to speak of life. So when this friend cites John Cheever’s aesthetic agenda, we readers listen closely. Novels, she says, should provide a “vision of life” rather than a “fascinated horror” of it. The trouble with contemporary fiction is that it’s far too preoccupied with the latter: “books about the horribleness of modern life… about narcissism and alienation and the futility of the relationships between the sexes”.1 The reader can only presume that What Are You Going Through? is not one of these books. If not, then what kind of novel is it?
Like the work of W.G. Sebald, Teju Cole, and Rachel Cusk, Nunez’s books are made out of philosophical conversations. Her characters philosophize primarily about literary life, the ethical terrain in which they live and work. “In a book I am reading the author talks about word people or fist people,” the narrator of The Friend (2018) tells us. “As if words could not also be fists. Aren’t often fists.”2 Nunez relaxes that wordy fist, unfurling its hand and reaching out to her readers, inviting them to participate in these philosophical dialogues along with her characters. Even the title of her most recent book–What Are You Going Through?–addresses its reader directly.
Nunez’s novels are often about friendships–between women and men, humans and animals, writers and readers. But what would it mean to think of friendship less as content than as literary style? For C.S. Lewis, friendship is a matter of posture. We often picture lovers standing face-to-face. Friends, however, tend to stand “side-by-side” as they face a “common quest or vision”: “You will not find the warrior, the poet, the philosopher or the Christian by staring into his eyes…” he writes, “better fight beside him, read with him, argue with him, pray with him.”3
Nunez takes up this posture alongside her readers at the level of form. Her novels mix anecdote with literary fragment, philosophical dialogue with slapstick. Reading her feels like something between reading a diary and a letter to a friend. The form of The Friend is designed to mimic this intimacy. The narrator of that novel addresses her friend directly–despite the fact that he is recently deceased by suicide. “There were two errors in your obituary,” the novel starts. “Small errors… which we all knew would have annoyed the hell out of you.”4 The narrator writes to him, thoughtfully but also casually, about the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, MFA programs, and pet ownership. She tells him stories, comments on his writerly method, and corrects his biased assumptions. This is not a confession but a conversation–an attempt to articulate a shared vision of life.
One recurring conversation in Nunez’s novels revolves around the oldest philosophical question: “What does it mean to live a good life?” This question is prominent in What Are You Going Through?, as the narrator joins her dying friend for a strange holiday in a house on the Atlantic coast. The two women go on walks, share stories from their childhoods, watch Buster Keaton films, talk about writing and dying. “Oh, what is this, what the fuck is this?” the friend asks in agony one night. “It was life, that’s what,” Nunez’s narrator tells us. “Messy life. Unfair life. Life that must be dealt with. That I must deal with.”5 In harnessing friendship as literary form, Nunez writes novels that provide philosophical companionship in a messy, unfair age.
1 Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through? (New York: Riverhead, 2020), p. 168.
2 Sigrid Nunez, The Friend (New York: Riverhead, 2018), p. 57.
3 C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, 1960), p. 104.
4 Nunez, The Friend, p. 2.
5 Nunez, What Are You Going Through?, p. 177.
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