Background Poise

The Vulnerables By Sigrid Nunez. New York: Riverhead. 256 pages. $28

The cover of The Vulnerables

THERE’S A PHOTOGRAPH of the writer Sigrid Nunez as a young woman, sometime in her mid-twenties. It is 1977 and she has graduated with an MFA from Barnard, having studied under Elizabeth Hardwick. In the picture, Nunez is quite literally radiant—her gleaming teal top echoes the light bouncing off her high cheekbones. 

On her left sits Susan Sontag, who is in her mid-forties. Wearing a black vest over a white dress shirt, Sontag leans slightly backward, her right hand grasping her left shoulder. Nunez tilts forward, long black hair framing her open, beaming face. Both women are smiling—their apparent closeness further emphasized by the truncated arm of someone else’s body just outside the frame. Sontag had invited the younger woman to move in with her the year before, after Hardwick recommended Nunez to help with paperwork following Sontag’s cancer treatment. In fact, Nunez might still be living with Sontag at the time this picture was taken, possibly inside Sontag’s apartment. 

It was through this photo, and through Sontag, that I discovered Nunez. When I first encountered the image online in the spring of 2011, I was a few years younger than Nunez at the time of its capture. The Paris Review had included it in an interview with Nunez subsequent to the publication of her memoir Sempre Susan, which details her difficult relationship with Sontag. But whenever I look at the image, I am less drawn to Sontag—already then a cultural celebrity—than to the ingenue at her side. For all Sontag’s physical magnetism, it is Nunez who draws the eye. 

I initially read Sempre Susan because I, like many women in their twenties, wanted to learn more about Susan Sontag—and who better to learn from than Sigrid Nunez, the woman who actually got to live with Sontag in her twenties. To my enormous surprise (naïve as I was), this arrangement turned out to be less than fun for Nunez. At the time of their cohabitation, Sontag was hardly known for her fiction. Though she had written two novels early in her career, they were not widely read, and it would be another sixteen years before she published The Volcano Lover. This, of course, did not stop her from offering notes on prose style to Nunez, the aspiring novelist. Don’t use the same word twice on the same page. Don’t be “too explicit . . . try to write more elliptically.” Sontag deemed most contemporary American fiction a disgrace, especially after the influence of Raymond Carver. (“It wasn’t at all that she was against minimalism,” Nunez recalls. “She just couldn’t be thrilled about a writer ‘who writes the same way he talks.’”) Be mindful, as Sontag was, of every comma.

“I rejected most of her advice,” writes Nunez in Sempre Susan, “and this hurt her.” In a story told from Nunez’s perspective, Sontag remains the commanding figure. (“‘Stop letting people bully you,’ she would bully me.”) After one of Nunez’s early visits to the apartment, Sontag decided to set Nunez up with her son, David Rieff. (“She encouraged David to call me. He was shy. She was not.”) Nunez moved in a few weeks later, working as both personal assistant and girlfriend in their odd throuple. (“His (soon to be our) bedroom was right next to hers.”) When she leaves after a year, partly due to Sontag’s overbearing presence, the matriarch warned: “You’re making a huge mistake.” Nunez ignored this too. She rented what she described as a “half-furnished shoe box with unreliable heat and hot water” where she “wasn’t happy,” but “more at peace.” She began working on a novel. 

Despite its title, Sempre Susan smuggles in Nunez’s origin story as a professional writer. Performing a sleight of hand with the genre of memoir, the memoirist turns her gaze on someone other than herself. Somewhere between fond retrospection and revenge tale, Sempre Susan narrates the novelist’s coming of age by dissecting the influence of her hyper-critical mentor. (The book, which began as an essay titled “Sontag’s Rules,” ends with Nunez breaking all of them.) So much of Nunez’s friendship with Sontag entailed being a background character; the memoir might have brought her to the foreground. But Nunez seems more at ease behind the scenes, where she has always done her best writing. Even as her career advances, leaving her no longer marginalized in any conventional sense, Nunez maintains this peripheral perspective—not raging at the center, but keenly and wryly observing it. In contrast to her mentor’s dominant, even domineering, approach, Nunez writes with an active elusiveness. 

Sempre Susan is Nunez’s only book of nonfiction. Readers of Nunez’s novels, however, might recognize elements of her fiction in the memoir. Here is the same narrating “I”—at once roving and intimate—who appears in nearly all her work. Across Nunez’s ten books—up to and including the latest novel, The Vulnerables—her prose runs almost directly contra Sontag’s advice. Nunez’s stories are emphatically voice-driven, and her narrators write, you might say, the way one imagines they talk. Consider the opening line to her first book, A Feather on the Breath of God: “The first time I ever heard my father speak Chinese was at Coney Island.” Or the simple speech act about the weather that opens The Vulnerables: “It was an uncertain spring.” Nunez’s prose is often so plain as to be deceptive. It’s not that she doesn’t write elliptically, as Sontag recommends; it’s just that, for her, the elliptical is often best achieved by being disarmingly explicit.

Nunez’s most explicitly autobiographical book might not be Sempre Susan but her debut novel, A Feather on the Breath of God. Published in 1995 when the author was forty-three, it is narrated in hazy retrospect by a woman who resembles Nunez: she is the daughter of Chinese-Panamanian and German immigrants who grows up in the Staten Island projects during the 1950s; she initially aspires to be a ballerina, but ends up an English teacher and writer instead. Upon completion, Nunez begrudged how “memoir-like” the whole thing appeared and “very much wanted to do the opposite with my next novels.” This was personal material, she reflected, “that I had to work through and deal with before I could move on.” What follows might be described as a series of exercises in imperfect ventriloquism. Naked Sleeper (an homage to Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights) abandons the first-person for an omniscient narrator. The story follows Nona, an insomniac struggling to complete a biography of her father, who killed himself while she was still young. Throughout Nunez’s novels, characters emerge by actively downplaying their own centrality: they signal their importance more by what they don’t say than by what they do. Nunez’s narrators make themselves present through proxies—be they strangers, neighbors, ex-lovers, or, most recently in The Vulnerables, a parrot.

Katherine Bernhardt, Pink Parrot, 2017, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 72 × 60". Courtesy: the artist and Canada, New York
Katherine Bernhardt, Pink Parrot, 2017, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 72 × 60". Courtesy: the artist and Canada, New York

Mitz, her third novel, splits the difference between the first two. Inspired by Flush, Virginia Woolf’s own imaginative biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Mitz is at once tribute and appropriation, love and theft. (In foregrounding the perspective of an unlikely animal companion, the book also anticipates Nunez’s 2018 canine-centric The Friend.) Like A Feather, it presents the fictionalized version of a real life; and like Naked Sleeper, it largely unfolds through free indirect discourse. If A Feather tells a thinly veiled novelization of Nunez’s life, then Mitz offers a fictionalization of the marmoset’s.

From the perch of an exotic animal, Mitz eagerly takes in her surroundings, even as she simultaneously defamiliarizes them. “Why did they wonder who was at the door when it was obviously Ottoline,” Mitz muses. She knows because she can smell them long before they arrive,  “reeking of perfume and pug.” The marmoset might function as a wild animal proxy for Woolf, but more obviously: she is a narrative surrogate for Nunez. Like Nunez with Sontag, Mitz observes scenes of high intellectual glamor as an interloper: “From Leonard’s shoulder or from inside his waistcoat, Mitz peered—up or down as the case might be—into some of the most celebrated faces of the day.”

While Mitz is “privy to the choicest gossip” in Bloomsbury, she crucially has access to domestic drama at the Woolfs’, frequently witnessing tiffs between Virginia and Leonard, as well as many instances of writer’s block: “Months passed, and The Years was not finished. Virginia kept setting new deadlines for herself—end of February, tenth of March, end of August—and failing to meet them. Pages were sent to the printer and put into galleys, and when the galleys came back Virginia revised them. But how could she publish such ‘feeble twaddle’? It could only bring her dishonor, she said.”

The Years would be the last novel Woolf published during her lifetime. But in the world of Mitz, no one knows this yet. As with all Nunez’s books, the narrative of Mitz is profoundly death-driven—though not, as one might expect, by Woolf’s looming suicide. Mitz ends, appropriately, with Mitz’s death: “Her eyes shut and her face white like a very old woman’s. Leonard had taken her to sleep in his room, and she climbed onto his foot last thing.” 

After Mitz, Nunez finally returns to the first-person narrator in For Rouenna—arguably her strongest work—and has not strayed since. The story is narrated not by its titular character, however, but by a novelist who remains nameless. (This metafictional framing—in which the narrator is also a writer herself—is consistent throughout Nunez’s work.) Yet despite being written in the first person, For Rouenna does not indulge in authorial subjectivity so much as it constantly tests its perceptual limits. The novel opens with a scenario familiar to many writers: “After my first book was published, I received some letters.” One of them comes from a woman named Rouenna Zycinski, who claims that they “had been neighbors in the same public housing project, on Staten Island.” When Rouenna keeps calling, the narrator finally agrees to meet her for lunch. “The voyeur in me was aroused,” she admits, and besides, “all I’d have to do would be to eat and listen. For it was not about me that the woman would want to talk, but about herself—I was quite sure of this.” The meeting that unfolds is typical Nunez insofar as it unsettles the narrator’s initial projections: “I had been right about not being bored and wrong about Rouenna’s eagerness to talk about herself; I had to draw her out.” 

It is only toward the very end of lunch that the narrator finally remembers Rouenna; or rather, remembers a memory she has of Rouenna: “a terrible story . . . I persisted for years in believing I had witnessed.” The story goes something like this: “It is summer, it is a blazing afternoon, and the Big Playground is as crowded as it ever gets,” when suddenly

A scream cuts through the noise. . . . The door of one of the apartment buildings opens and the girl tears out. Screaming, naked. Behind her, almost upon her, comes her half-naked father. Barefoot, shirtless, pants slipping down his hips because he wears no belt, because the belt is in his hand, he is swinging the belt over his head, he is cracking the belt in the air. “Cunt! You goddamn cunt, I’ll kill you, you little cunt!” She believes him. No one hearing her screams could doubt it. She flies before him as before sure death. 

The scene is so unnerving, there is little surprise why the narrator remembers it. Yet her detailed description, even dipping into Rouenna’s interiority (“She believes him”), suggests that she witnessed it herself, when “in fact, I was not there that day—it was a trick of memory, I was told. I had only heard the story, later, from the many who were there.” 

The trick of memory—call it unreliable narration—is a feature, not a bug, in Nunez’s fiction. Frequent glitches in recollection are part of the very texture of her prose, which oscillates in time, arcing backward (in retrospection) and then suddenly forward (as prolepsis) in impossible narrative contortions. Of course, making things up is the novelist’s prerogative. But Nunez’s narrators do more than just that—they constantly announce their fallibility. As Rouenna’s public beating became part of neighborhood lore, the narrator tells us, “the story got mixed up with other stories that had violence and nakedness in them, some true, some not.”

Like any good storyteller, this narrator lets her imagination run away from her. Hours after their lunch, she has another vivid vision of Rouenna “leaning into the refrigerator” and stuffing herself with the leftover turkey and chocolate mousse pie she had served earlier that afternoon. It is a perversely intimate, aggressively unflattering, and grossly embodied tableau—though one that seems to tell us more about the narrator’s anxieties than Rouenna’s. “She is hungry!” the narrator imagines. “She wanted something.” 

What Rouenna wants, it turns out, is what the narrator is already doing: to tell stories about her. As a novelist, she often meets people who insist that “their lives would make great books. My dentist and my hairdresser. The building super. Neighbors. The auditor sent by the IRS. And why not? They all had childhoods. They all had families; they had loved and been loved.” The book Rouenna wants the narrator to write, however, is of a slightly different genre. Rouenna doesn’t want to talk about love; she wants the narrator to write about war, and specifically Rouenna’s own experience as an army nurse in Vietnam. 

Early in the novel, Rouenna commits suicide. This unexpected event precipitates the narrator’s mourning and meditation, as she tries to reconstruct—for Rouenna—their conversations into something like her life story. It is an attempt marked by inevitable failure and necessary deceit. The narrator doesn’t ultimately tell Rouenna’s story so much as channel her voice. Frequently slipping into the close third, she inhabits Rouenna’s experiences in Vietnam, her most intimate thoughts, things the narrator couldn’t ever have known, “some true, some not.”

SINCE A FEATHER, Nunez’s novels have increasingly pushed the limits of storytelling. Her latest three novels—The Friend (2018), What Are You Going Through (2020), and The Vulnerables (2023)—are all narrated by aging women who, like Nunez, live in New York City and work as writing professors. Resonances between Nunez’s narrators and the author herself have drawn recent comparisons to the burgeoning genre of autofiction, by writers like Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti. (The dog in The Friend even eats the narrator’s copy of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.) It’s tempting to identify the woman writer as an allegorical sublimation of Nunez herself. Yet to pursue the autobiographical throughline in Nunez’s oeuvre is to admit an almost prurient interest in her personal life, given her reserved nature. As she often reflects: “I became a writer because it was something I could do alone and hidden in my room.”

Nunez was sixty-seven years old when The Friend won the National Book Award. As one New York Times headline dryly put it, “With ‘The Friend,’ Sigrid Nunez Becomes an Overnight Literary Sensation, 23 Years and Eight Books Later.” Only upon finishing The Friend did Nunez realize how that novel “flowed directly out of my first book. This is the same narrator as A Feather on the Breath of God, just much older.” They share the “same consciousness, interest in reading, tendency to quote readings, solitariness,” Nunez says. “And as soon as I started writing What Are You Going Through I realized the great similarity between its narrator and that of The Friend.”

This same narrative consciousness also guides The Vulnerables. Together, Nunez’s last three novels form a kind of loose trilogy—one held together less by a common plot, or even common protagonist, so much as a shared narrative attunement. One might be tempted to make a connection to Cusk’s Outline trilogy, which similarly features first-person narrators who act as recording machines for other people’s stories. The comparison would be a mistake. Cusk’s speakers do not so much move into the background as become one with, seamlessly dictating the minds of others. Her narrators always remain the organizing structuring device of their novels: they are the center from which the world around them radiates. By contrast, Nunez’s trilogy is far more dialogic in the true sense of the word. Her narrators write the way they talk. Sometimes they say the wrong thing; they can be surprisingly petty or cruel. 

It is appropriate that Nunez’s late style is also a return to her early style—with the “same narrator . . . just much older.” If one examines her body of work, this may not be much of a discrepancy. Nunez’s younger heroines were already fundamentally withdrawn (disappearing into the background, remembering by way of proxies); her older narrators remain all these things—just more so. The aging woman is the natural realization of what was always already present in Nunez’s writing, if simply because older women can more easily disappear.

Nunez’s late novels tell stories about women who remain hidden in plain sight. In The Friend, the narrator copes with her friend’s suicide by taking care of the Great Dane that he leaves behind. While it’s clear to the reader that the narrator is still in love with her dead friend, whom she once briefly dated, it’s less clear what the friend—who in his lifetime was accused of infidelities and sexual harassment—felt about our narrator. In What Are You Going Through, the narrator is asked by her friend, who is dying of cancer, to accompany her in her final days, before she commits euthanasia. It’s a fairly big ask in any context, typically reserved for the most intimate of friends or lovers. But in this case, the dying friend notably informs the narrator that she was not her first pick. Following narrators who remain engaged with a world that might not love them back—or love them the same amount—is Nunez’s power move as a storyteller.

Set during the early months of the COVID lockdown in New York City, The Vulnerables is a novel of uneven intimacies, of, perhaps, unrequited love. “It was an uncertain spring,” goes the opening sentence, drawn from the first line of Virginia Woolf’s The Years. Woolf’s novel begins in the uncertain spring of 1880 London (on the cusp of the first Boer War) and goes on to track the daily minutiae of the Pargiter family until Woolf’s “Present Day” of the 1930s. Nunez’s uncertain spring takes place during the first months of 2020—right before pandemic lockdown—and blooms onto a different era of vulnerability, which is to say, our present.

Nunez’s narrator is singled out early on as one of the book’s titular vulnerables when someone accuses her of “breaking the rules” by taking long, meandering walks outdoors: “You’re a vulnerable. . . . And you need to act like one.” This is the first of many references to the protagonist’s age. As with so much late style, the narrative of The Vulnerables is loose and meandering. The wandering, almost essayistic, quality of Nunez’s prose is appropriate to its plot, in emulating the felt precarity of those early days of the pandemic. “Everyone’s having to adjust,” another friend tells the narrator, “to make it up as they go along.” It’s a kind of creative impetus for the novel as well. Whatever guiding principles once organized the world—novelistic or otherwise—no longer seem to apply.

“Every story worth telling is a love story, said someone I used to love very much,” goes the melancholic first sentence of an early chapter. Here’s the second: “But this is not that story.” 

This is the little magic trick Nunez performs: she invokes a writing rule (“Never open a book with the weather”) and then breaks it. She observes a cliché (why are some plants considered “old-lady flowers”) and then doubles down (every elderly woman in The Vulnerables is named after such a flower: Lily, Rose, Violet). She borrows lavishly from other people’s prose (Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Simone Weil, J. M. Coetzee), only to throw her own—plain, spoken—voice into sharper relief. Like a lot of my favorite writers, Nunez tops from the bottom.

Old and unmarried, the narrator of The Vulnerables is at somewhat of a disadvantage to those around her. When the novel opens, she is living alone in her small Manhattan apartment, as the city empties out, with friends escaping to their vacation homes. It’s the narrator’s lack of attachments, in fact, that precipitates the novel’s meandering plot: one that weaves across childhood reveries, an old friend’s funeral, and finally into caring for a friend of a friend’s pet parrot. (As with Nunez in Sempre Susan, or the narrator of The Friend, the protagonist of The Vulnerables is recruited partly out of sheer convenience.) 

Like Sempre Susan, The Vulnerables rotates around a kind of odd throuple: the unnamed narrator, a depressed young man whom she refers to as “Vetch” (not his real name), and a parrot named Eureka (his real name). The three of them, each vulnerable in their own way, are unexpectedly brought together during lockdown, when both humans are asked to care for the parrot, who is left behind in a spacious NoMad apartment. (Eureka’s owners are meanwhile stuck in Palo Alto, quarantining with in-laws.) The situation feels like the set-up to a romantic comedy, except what follows is not exactly a love story. For starters, the narrator is far too old for Vetch—an age gap that, as Nunez’s prior novels have explored, would be less of an issue were the genders reversed. As the weather warms up, Vetch begins sleeping on the roof. The narrator doesn’t particularly like sleeping outdoors, but she nonetheless feels “a stab of envy. He made me feel like I was really missing something. . . . More: there wasn’t much doubt in my mind that, had we been closer in age, I would have been sleeping up there with him.”

While the two don’t end up sleeping together, they do get stoned a lot: getting high and having long conversations into the night being perhaps the more lasting intimacy. While sharing a joint one evening, Vetch suggests they “do something kinky” and “go sit in the living room.” Lying on perpendicularly arranged sofas (with Eureka perched on the coffee table), the two wax philosophical: “If you could ask a dog one question, what would it be?” Vetch thinks he would ask the dog, “Why do you love people so much?” But the narrator is flummoxed by the thought experiment. “The question was meaningless,” she decides. “Whatever answer the dog came up with would only be coming from the same place as the question. Which was not from the dog.” Here, as ever, the minds of others, including animals, remain opaque—at best a projection from one’s limited vantage. 

Despite being a professional writer, the narrator gets very little actual writing done in The Vulnerables. Instead, she has conversations—first with Eureka, and then, progressively, Vetch. In Nunez’s novels, it’s not just the narrator who talks a lot. If anything, her novels have gotten chattier over time. Nunez’s narrators are roving satellites, picking up and rechanneling the voices (and sometimes even thoughts) of those they encounter. Her writing exemplifies the social realism of George Eliot (another great writer of middle-age), whose “keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life” aspires to extend to even the squirrel’s heartbeat. But Nunez is even more direct than Eliot. Stripped of free indirect discourse, her first-person speakers embed the act of storytelling, the art of fictionality, into their own narration. Little surprise, perhaps, that the creature so prominently featured on the cover of The Vulnerables is a parrot—an animal known for repeating other people’s words.

Nunez’s novels are deeply concerned with what it means to be a novelist of the social—to make oneself vulnerable to other people, time and time again. For her narrators, perhaps every story worth telling is a love story, because to simply tell stories is to risk falling in love. One day, out of the blue, Vetch informs the narrator he’s leaving to live with “two roommates who needed a third.” He’s taking Eureka with him. Having someone else to care for helps with his depression. “That’s wonderful, I said, my heart breaking,” the narrator tells us. “And watched them go: out of my life, out of my novel.” 

Her heart is breaking. He walks out of her life, and out of her novel. Bittersweet disappearing act, softly into the night. If you’ve read Nunez, you’ve seen it before. But the writer interrupting to remind us that we’re still reading a novel: that is Nunez’s signature move of recession. Vetch says goodbye to the narrator, and soon after, the narrator says goodbye to us.

After Vetch leaves, the narrative heartbeat dwindles on. In the days that follow, Nunez’s speaker often thinks about him, speaks to him, even dreams of him. At one point, she reflects on her own restraint: “Proud of myself for having resisted the temptation to show him photographs of myself when I was his age.” The photo, one might imagine, could look a lot like Nunez in her twenties, smiling beside Sontag. Did I say that The Vulnerables was not a love story? Maybe I was lying. It’s not, at least, that kind of love story. But Nunez, here as ever, breaks all the rules.

It was an uncertain spring earlier this year when I finally met Nunez in person, at a reading event for her novel What Are You Going Through—delayed and rescheduled due to COVID. When I see her, she’s exactly as I imagined: short and regal, graceful but with a sense of the slapstick. During Q&A, the topic of animals comes up. Nunez hints at the fact that she’s working on a novel right now about a different kind of animal—a parrot. Someone raises their hand and recommends to Nunez a small book titled Flush, by Virginia Woolf. I start to blush. This is the moment—at any other talk, with any other writer—where the novelist informs the well-meaning audience member that she not only knows of Flush but in fact wrote a novel inspired directly by it. Except this doesn’t happen. Instead, Nunez responds by echoing the audience member’s sentiment: yes, Flush is a wonderful book, and what’s more, a highly underrated one when it comes to Woolf. I don’t know why I expected anything else. When it comes to Nunez, she always says the loud part quietly.  

Jane Hu is a critic living in Los Angeles.