Passing Through

What Are You Going Through BY Sigrid Nunez. New York: Riverhead. 224 pages. $26.

The cover of What Are You Going Through

THE NARRATOR OF SIGRID NUNEZ’S NEW NOVEL, What Are You Going Through, is an unmarried female writer who seems to be between sixty and seventy years old. She has a friend, another unmarried female writer of the same age, who is dying of cancer. (The friend prefers the word fatal to the word terminal—“Terminal makes me think of bus stations, which makes me think of exhaust fumes and creepy men prowling for runaways,” she says.) After the last round of treatment fails, the friend—no one is named, which works well in the novel but is already cumbersome in a review—invites the narrator to accompany her to a vacation house, where she intends to kill herself with a lethal dose of medication. “I know your feelings won’t be hurt when I say that you weren’t my first choice,” she says. But the dying woman has a difficult relationship with her daughter, and her closest friends have refused. “They could never stand by while she took her own life, they would try to stop her. No, they said. No. No.” The narrator says yes. Actually, she doesn’t say anything. She listens. She shakes her head. And she goes on the vacation.

Some hijinks ensue—the friend forgets the pills, they have to drive back for them. They watch Leo McCarey’s heartbreaking Make Way for Tomorrow and a collection of Buster Keaton movies; whether crying or laughing, they can’t stop “choking and clutching at each other like two people hopelessly trying to save each other from drowning.” The narrator reads out loud—they both like fairy tales. They talk, or the friend talks. Eventually they become so “attuned” that they don’t need to talk at all. The only person in whom the narrator confides about the situation is an ex-boyfriend, a gloomy writer who has given up art and culture in order to focus on ringing the alarm about climate crisis. He enjoys the anecdote about forgetting the pills (he calls it “Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia”) and tells the narrator that she is doing the right and brave thing—“but I can’t imagine what you must be going through.” Nor does the narrator give him much help: “And how could I ever describe it?” is her unspoken answer. Perhaps it’s not something anyone can describe. I find myself searching for the right verb—assist and even help are too active. Witness isn’t right for a deed that is intended to happen spontaneously, behind closed doors. Accompany? Enable?

The book’s epigraph comes from Simone Weil: “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him, ‘What are you going through?’” Later, the narrator points out that the original quote has a different valence: “Quel est ton tourment?” We are meant to understand that the narrator is defined by her inquiries into the torments of others—her friend’s suffering as well as that of an elderly neighbor in her apartment building, a woman at the gym. She even ventures into the mind of a stray cat. What Are You Going Through gets at its central action—itself deferred—slowly, circling it by way of these other encounters. One might want to compare the book’s conversation-heavy structure to Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. But the Outline books are cold and austere, organized around a reticent observer whose judgments are nonetheless palpable. Love doesn’t come into them. Nunez’s narrator is more present—we sometimes get her own memories spliced in with someone else’s account—and conflicted, at times anguished. She seems to be grieving even before her friend announces her plan. “A feeling of loneliness and disappointment came over me,” the narrator thinks while searching for a bar to have a drink alone. “It was a familiar feeling.”

Suicide is a recurring theme in Nunez’s work. In For Rouenna (2001), a writer (unmarried, female) tells the story of Rouenna, a woman who grew up in the same housing project as she did, became a nurse in the Vietnam War and, later, killed herself. In The Friend (2018), which won the National Book Award, a writer (also unmarried, also female) adopts the Great Dane that belonged to her mentor and friend after he commits suicide. Mitz (1998), Nunez’s novel about Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s pet marmoset, is under the shadow of suicide, too; we can’t read it without knowing what Virginia will eventually do. Where suicide usually divides a person from others, in What Are You Going Through it brings the friend and narrator together, allowing them to repair and deepen their relationship. “It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” the narrator thinks. “Even if it strikes me now as having been inevitable. But doesn’t love always feel just so: destined, no matter how unexpected, no matter how improbable.”

Still, it is a lonely kind of love. Nunez’s narrators are typically lonely. That is how she imagines the writer’s vocation. “A single room. A chair, a table, a bed. Windows on a garden. Music. Books. A cat to teach me how to be alone with dignity,” thought the narrator of her first novel, A Feather on the Breath of God (1995). “A room where men might come and go but never stay. I began dreaming of this room when I was still in my teens. I saw it waiting for me at the end of a long wavering corridor.”

Yih-Han Wu, Angel of Death, 2017, ink on paper, 25 5/8 x 39 3/8".
Yih-Han Wu, Angel of Death, 2017, ink on paper, 25 5/8 x 39 3/8″. Courtesy the artist

What Are You Going Through opens in an Airbnb, which the narrator has rented so that she can visit her friend in the hospital. The narrator doesn’t like the decor. There are too many area rugs, the bed is too crowded with pillows (“What most people call cozy— gemütlich, hygge—others find stifling”). She prefers the New England home her friend rents: “The arrangement of well-made furniture against just enough polished bareness. Some handsome ceramics but few other household ornaments. That balance of comfort and simplicity that I have heard called Shaker luxe.” It’s a description that might just as well apply to Nunez’s own style, which has always been unflashy and matter of fact, but since The Friend has become even more compressed, with more of the architecture of plot and character stripped away. There is something ghostly and a little disembodied in the scene-setting and character description; what the reader remembers is what people say and think—their ideas—rather than how they move or what they look like.

In 2006 Claire Messud observed that “Sigrid Nunez is a memoirist of considerable gifts, which is worth remarking only because she is the author of novels rather than of memoirs.” It’s true that Nunez’s early novels are, as Messud wrote, “marked with the authority of lived experience, and readily acknowledge that authority.” However, since Sempre Susan (2011), an actual memoir (of Nunez’s relationships with Sontag and Sontag’s son, David Rieff), Nunez has felt freer to allow the autobiographical to take over the narrative, or to pretend to do so. There is no longer a writer observing the lives of some more colorful or lively characters from the side. We are placed more explicitly in the writers’ minds. Their voices are easeful, conversational, intelligent but not pedantic. They are interesting—worthwhile—company not because they are writers, but because they are readers. Unlike other authors, especially young ones, Nunez is never embarrassed or burdened by her characters’ knowledge; her narrators are aware but not self-aware in such a way that hobbles them. She doesn’t feel the need to apologize for their learning. They are, to use a word that used to be a compliment, intellectuals. Female intellectuals.

Their thoughts run to Rilke, Weil, Henry James, Ingeborg Bachmann. There was a profound textual pleasure in The Friend and there is in What Are You Going Through, too. It’s not just that these books feel “real” in that the things that happen in them could happen in life; the narrators’ struggle to think and write and make sense of these experiences feels real. It feels aged—wise, even, like her narrators have acquired knowledge at some personal cost. Nunez uses quotation to illuminate situation, and her choices can be devastating. When she invokes Walter Benjamin, on the last page of What Are You Going Through—“What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about”—we know that the narrator is confessing that her way of loving her neighbor has also been a way of warming her shivering self, by crafting the story of her friend’s death. When the narrator agrees with Camus—“The literal meaning of life is whatever you do that stops you from killing yourself”—we feel that there is some great well of experience being held back behind those words. What is your torment?

The two women talk about Faulkner. He had the idea, the friend says, that the writer’s job is to “lift people up.” He advised a return to the “old universal truths—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” I don’t know if these are the tasks of the writer, but they do describe the work of being a friend.

Christine Smallwood’s novel The Life of the Mind will be published in March 2021 by Hogarth.