What Are You Going Through
Riverhead Books/2020/210 pp/26.00
Reviewed by Dianne Aprile / May 2021
Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel, What are You Going Through, embodies the fourth criterion in Italo Calvino’s list of what makes a classic. That is, it’s a book for which “each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.” I’ve read it three times now, and each re-encounter uncovers more to be learned about the complexities of friendship—in particular, its twin extremes of connection and loss. Plus, in its cheeky meta-fictional way, this collage-like novel offers object lessons in the writing life, as well. To observe, to witness, to eaves-drop upon, to render life to overheard conversations—these are the activities that become material in the hands of a confident writer like Nunez.
A National Book Award winner for her 2018 novel, The Friend, Nunez always has seemed to me to have more on her mind than plot. Yet, her new novel is steeped in an archetypal conflict: to be or not to be. A terminally ill friend of the unnamed narrator wants to end her life on her own terms. And she wants our narrator to help her with the task. But this conflict, the crux of the tale, isn’t revealed till halfway through the novel. And the story evolves less out of any rising or falling action, but more from what surrounds it—a web of vignettes, a collage of other people’s experiences, a tangle of philosophical musings.
The narrative advances like a rambling, late-pandemic brutally honest conversation with a friend who is not afraid to be intimate nor dispassionate. Its wandering path takes us on a tour of the vicissitudes of duty, devotion, fear, partnership, and grief. Nunez spins her tale casually, indirectly—continually interrupting her primary storyline, which is the often hilarious, always poignant effort to help her friend die. Like the art form of collage, this layering and juxtaposition of disparate elements creates something deeper and more complex than its individual parts.
In truth, though it may feel like a shaggy dog story at times, Nunez is in total control of these asides. The book is built upon all of them—the dying friend as well as each overheard conversation, every shared story from someone else’s life, the mini-essays on feminism and other knotty cultural challenges, each well-timed joke.
How does Nunez do this, you might wonder? She writes in the tradition of the “essay novel,” a form exemplified by a nonlinear, disjointed or disrupted narrative. Not a story within a story, nor parallel plot lines. Nothing so rigid or experimental as that. More like a stream-of-consciousness stroll, a la Virginia Woolf, where every detail, no matter how offbeat, circles back to and underscores the main conflict. In these mere 200 pages, she addresses the literary merit of several writers, including Ford Madox Ford, William Faulkner, and D.H. Lawrence, all of whom provide meta-clues to her own writerly methods. She introduces a handful of film documentaries, as well—some familiar and others not, but all in keeping with her themes of grief and guilt, disconnection and abandonment.
In a Zoom interview last fall, Nunez spoke of her own fascination, as a fledgling writer, with fiction that addressed hard subjects, such as the Holocaust stories of Primo Levi. In them, she hunted for the ways in which a narrator’s particular mood or stance could open doors for readers, inviting them to step comfortably into uncomfortable territory. She studied the approach a given writer took toward his central topic—in Levi’s case, man’s inhumanity toward man. Was the stance solemn, or ironic?
She seems to have learned her lessons well. It’s her ability to strike the right narrative tone that allows Nunez to veer off into musings about literature, aging, contemporary mores, even a wonderfully snarky scene at a bookstore reading that captures familiar postures struck by academics trying too hard to be “relevant.” Worth noting, too, she is an energetic breaker of the fourth wall, an element crucial to her intimate style.
She draws her readers again and again into the “saddest of stories,” as she calls them—tales of sorrows private and public, inconceivable estrangements, and foreshadowings of catastrophe. Many of these stories remain purposefully unfinished, still in some stage of evolving. As in the novels of Rachel Cusk, Nunez’s vignettes and scenes feel as if relayed by a most empathetic listener, the kind of discerning presence we all hope will show up when we need it.
This is how Nunez pulls us in. It’s the conversational candor of an obviously trustworthy narrator who makes us want to follow her anywhere. Even if that anywhere is the site of topics as charged as assisted suicide, political hostilities, environmental destruction. It’s because we feel in the presence of a compassionate friend, as if we were reading her “pinned” expression from the other side of the Zoom screen, or dwelling on the pages of letters she’d hand-written for us. We hang on each word of this quick-witted friend. She can be deadly funny, seriously comic. Also note: An orphaned dog plays a leading role in The Friend, while in her new book, a Scheherazade of a cat takes a star turn in its own surprising but earned chapter, a passage which echoes Nunez’s recurring motif of the slippery nature of truth and memory.
Like Cusk, Nunez reveals other people’s stories as often as she discloses her own. And yet Nunez’s narrator is not stingy or at arm’s length to the reader. She exposes herself with unflattering details. She often concludes her reminiscences with a disclaimer. It ended this way, or maybe not, I can’t remember. As early as page twenty-five, our narrator confesses, “It never matters to me how a mystery ends.” These admissions and their tone of forthrightness, their lack of vanity, not surprisingly inspire even more trust. And those seemingly tossed-out allusions to films and books? Check them out further, Google them, and you will find even more connections to Nunez’s own tales. Have I mentioned she is as crafty as she is candid?
As if all this were not enough to warrant a second and third reading for the sheer pleasure of the intricate storytelling, Nunez embroiders her novel with unexpected lines that cry out to be jotted down in a notebook for further meditation. For example, on the subject of the treacherous relationship between her dying friend and the friend’s daughter, Nunez shares the mother’s comment that there were “enough bones of contention between us . . . to make a whole skeleton.” And there’s her habit of repeating phrases, in the manner of Joan Didion. Yet Nunez, unlike Didion, is no cool customer observing from an ironic distance—but rather, she conspires with us in these tactical moments. A shared nod or wink between author and reader.
If for no other reason, the narrator’s penchant for slipping memorable images and metaphors onto a page makes reading this novel a thrill. For example, on her inability to keep a journal during stressful times, she writes: “No matter how hard we try to put the most important things into words, it is always like toe-dancing in clogs.” Or, this jaw-dropper: “The literal meaning of life is whatever you do that stops you from killing yourself.”
But perhaps my favorite bit of craftiness in this novel is the way Nunez uses silence. Not as a physical space on the page, nor as a literal explication of how meaning is often conveyed without words. No, Nunez’s approach is more direct and effective than either of those strategies. In more than one conversation, she has characters “speak” to one another only within their own heads, while making it clear that despite the physical silence between them, their interior observations are actually heard by the other. Consider these snippets from the narrator’s conversation with her friend, who despite knowing she’s in her final days, confesses to feeling she has “all the time in the world:”
That must be eternity, I said without speaking.
The nearness of eternity, she agreed silently.
And on the next page, this intimate dialogue seamlessly shifts gears from silent communication to actual words spoken aloud:
How will you ever get through this, I thought.
I really don’t know, she thought back.
Wouldn’t that be something, she said to me, if dying turned out to be a bore.
No reading of this novel can go without noting the fact that Nunez was a longtime friend of the late writer Susan Sontag, whose son Nunez dated in the 1970s and whose life and death she memorialized in her memoir, Sempre Susan. Once again, the loss of a confidante plays center stage in Nunez’s storytelling.
Finishing this novel for the third time, I sensed a coming to terms with the innate distress we humans experience as we face the fact of impermanence. How can we accept our dread of not getting what we want and of losing what we hold dear? I understood this underlying motif more keenly upon each reading, as I rolled with Nunez’s echoing phrase, “the saddest story ever told.” Stories, she never stops insisting, can be our salvation.
A former jazz-club owner and magazine book-review columnist, Dianne Aprile is the author of four books and editor of several others, including collaborations with visual artists. A member of Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing faculty since 2001, Dianne and her husband live on the east side of Seattle where she leads online community writing workshops.