The Odd Couple

The Friend: A Novel BY Sigrid Nunez. Riverhead Books. Hardcover, 224 pages. $25.

The cover of The Friend: A Novel

I don’t know whether or not The Friend is a good novel or even, strictly speaking, if it’s a novel at all—so odd is its construction—but after I’d turned the last page of the book I found myself sorry to be leaving the company of a feeling intelligence that had delighted me and even, on occasion, given joy.

The narrator is a writer whose great and good friend of thirty years (a man who’d once been her mentor) has committed suicide. She goes into shock and stops working: “I missed my deadline. Was given a compassionate extension. Missed that deadline, too. Now the editor thinks I’m malingering.” She also begins speaking to the dead man: “I was not the only one who made the mistake of thinking that, because it was something you talked about a lot, it was something you wouldn’t do. And after all, you were not the unhappiest person we knew.” Stumbling through days and weeks of unremitting pain, she often feels overtaken by a “fog that descends at certain moments, unsettling as amnesia. (What am I doing in this classroom? Why, in this mirror, does my face look so weird? I wrote that? What could I have meant?)” Certainly, the reader is encouraged to believe that this is the friend of the title. But wait.

The suicide’s widow tells the narrator she must come get the dead man’s dog, that he had always counted on her taking it should something happen to him. Oh no, the narrator says, she can’t take the dog—a handsome Great Dane—no pets allowed in her building, but the widow is adamant. The narrator capitulates and takes the dog: whereupon she not only falls passionately in love with the animal (who’s been named Apollo), but also soon begins to experience a sense of communion with him that is stronger, more evocative, more original than any she has known before. Daily her sense of wonder grows over the miracle of living with this beautiful, intelligent creature who starts her thinking about the inner life of his species: “They don’t commit suicide. They don’t weep. But they can and do fall to pieces. They can and do have their hearts broken. They can and do lose their minds.” They also brilliantly intuit the moods of the person with whom they are living.

One night, in the course of tearing the place apart (he’s been left alone for too many hours), Apollo shreds a book the narrator has left on her coffee table. Weeks later, as she sits reading on the couch, the dog looks at her “imploringly,” then goes over to the coffee table, puts the paperback replacement of this same book in his mouth, and brings it to her.

A world of meaning begins to accumulate around this relationship that now irradiates the narrator’s own inner life. She remembers the time when the dead man, then her teacher, assigned her class Letters to a Young Poet, and she first came across Rilke’s famous definition of love: “Two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other.” Now, some forty years later, having assigned the text to her own writing class, she reads the book again and thinks, “What are we, Apollo and I, if not two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other?”

Great Dane, ca. 1930. San Marcos Daily Record Negatives/Flickr.
Great Dane, ca. 1930. San Marcos Daily Record Negatives/Flickr.

She begins hibernating with the dog, feeling less and less need to leave the apartment. It occurs to her that he has given her an excuse to do that which she has always found most compelling. Her therapist has her number. One day he says to her, “Strays is what a writer I recently read calls those who, for one reason or another, and despite whatever they might have wanted earlier in life, never really become a part of life, not in the way most people do. They may have serious relationships, they may have friends, even a sizable circle, they may spend large portions of their time in the company of others. But they never marry and they never have children. On holidays, they join some family or other group. This goes on year after year, until they finally find it in themselves to admit that they’d really rather just stay home.”

“But you must see a lot of people like that,” the narrator says to the therapist.

“Actually,” he tells her, “I don’t.”

Stitched through these absorptions with the dog and the dead man is an ongoing rumination on the writing life, as well as on the New York literary world, where the narrator feels herself not central but nonetheless rooted. Traveling to attend an awards ceremony, she spots two people on the subway and knows immediately they are going to the same place. She can always tell her compatriots: “Like the time I passed three men in a booth in a restaurant in Chelsea and pegged them even before I heard one say, That’s the great thing about writing for The New Yorker.”

The relation between writing itself and the influence of the literary scene sometimes weighs on her: “Even though writing isn’t supposed to be a competition, I could see that most of the time writers believed that it was. . . . People were constantly getting worked up over who got what and who got left out and how horribly unfair the whole business was.” The narrator quotes John Updike as having once said that “a nice person wouldn’t become a writer.” The problem, he implied, was the monumental load of shame, doubt, and self-loathing most writers carry about from the cradle to the grave.

The dog, the suicide, the writing life: These are the three strands of thought and feeling that make up the weave of The Friend. They don’t always mesh or make a satisfying design, but they are held together by the tone of the narrator’s voice: light, musing, curious, and somehow wonderfully sturdy. Time and again this sturdiness rescues the narrator from falling into self-pity or self-dramatization. In one instance, it avoids the maudlin by ringing a delicious change on the register of what is now called magical thinking:

I tell the therapist about those uncanny moments, after I first heard the news, when I believed there’d been a mistake. You were gone but not dead. More like you were just missing . . . missing, not dead. Meaning you could come back . . . and if you could come back, of course you would. Akin to that brief period years ago when I believed it was just stress or fatigue or some odd phase I was going through, and once whatever the trouble was had passed my looks would come back.

Time passes, and Apollo grows dangerously old. He becomes incontinent, collapses on the sidewalk, stinks up the house. Summer comes and both dog and mistress are rescued by a sympathetic friend who treats them to a couple of weeks at the shore.

Day after day the dying dog lies in the sun on the lawn in front of the seaside cottage while the narrator sits on the porch reading, or lazily watching the flying patterns of the multitude of butterflies around the place. Then one day a gull cries out—and here are the last lines of the book:

“Oh, what a sound. What could that gull have seen to make it cry out like that?

“The butterflies are in the air again, moving off, in the direction of the shore.

“I want to call your name, but the word dies in my throat.

Oh, my friend, my friend!

Now, it seemed to me, The Friend had arrived. The heartbreak inscribed in those final words fills the page to the margin and beyond with the penetrating loneliness—the sheer textured burden of life itself—that all of Sigrid Nunez’s fine writing had been at brilliant pains to keep both within sight and at bay.

Some twenty pages from the end and out of the blue, Nunez goes “meta” on us. In an imaginary sequence of questions and answers the author suggests that none of what she’s described has actually happened: The dead man did try to kill himself, but he did not succeed, he’s still alive; he wasn’t, as we were told, born in England, he’s an American; and the dog was a dachshund, not a Great Dane. The narrator has simply been imagining how she would have felt if the man had died, and she had had to take the dog. These factually disguised details, she suggests, are why she feels free to call her book a novel.

I realized, reading these pages—which by the way strike the only awkward note in the book—that never once did I experience The Friend as a work of fiction, never felt the narrator was anyone other than the author herself or that anything she described hadn’t had its origin in some actual occurrence. From beginning to end, I thought myself engaged with what we now call the personal narrative.

So I ask myself what it is that makes a reader believe she can easily tell the difference between a fictional and a nonfictional narrator, and I am not asking the question rhetorically. I do not have some clever answer up my sleeve—I genuinely desire an answer to the question. Then I stop asking the question, because clearly there are times when the point is not worth belaboring. If the writing in a book is such that it moves the heart, stimulates the intellect, and enlivens the spirit, we can conclude that it is a work of literature—period—and as such is entitled to make its own laws. On that note I leave The Friend to go out into the world of the common reader, where it is sure to connect swiftly with its natural soul mates, of whom I am certain there will be many.

Vivian Gornick is the author of the memoir The Odd Woman and the City (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).