Sigrid Nunez Has a Question for You (and Me)

Whenever I love a novel, I have mixed feelings about reading that author’s next work. On the one hand, I can’t wait, but on the other, I feel a certain amount of trepidation, fearing there is no way the new work can live up to the older one.

I needn’t have worried, though, about Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through, a worthy follow-up to her National Book Award Winner, The Friend.

The new novel, her seventh, is a kind of sequel – not in that it follows the same characters, but that it advances many of the same themes: friendship, death, suicide, and most important, how to go on with life’s daily routine in the midst of an endangered future.

The narrator of What Are You Going Through is again unnamed, unmarried, childless, and a writer who talks repeatedly of the challenges of her craft, particularly the difficulty of getting it right and the ethics of exploiting others’ experiences. She is also a keen observer and not shy about quoting from a score or more of other writers, past and present. Nunez, in a fascinating interview late last year, acknowledged the similarities in the two narrators, saying that while they are different characters, they share a voice and outlook and sensibilities.

The narrator’s friend in this novel is an old but not particularly close friend who makes a difficult request. The friend has inoperable cancer, plans to end her life on her own terms, and wants the narrator to be the one person by her side through it all. They grow close again, in ways neither expected.

Another key character is the narrator’s ex-husband, another author, one who has taken to traveling the country to deliver depressing lectures on how mankind has destroyed the planet. His speech offers no hope, insisting it’s too late to do anything about it. His lectures are complete downers—his only advice is not to bring more children into the world—and he won’t even take questions after delivering his diatribe.

In other words, doom is all around us but somehow life goes on—with the need to perform all the usual mundane tasks (house cleaning, grocery shopping, dealing with plumbing repairs),  while passing the time in the usual mundane ways (reading cozy mysteries and watching old movies on television)—despite what may seem like the futility of it.  Ann E. Clark’s review of the novel in the Los Angeles Review of Books captures the question in this perfectly: “How should we live when the world is ending?”

While the new novel explores many of the same themes as The Friend, it is more somber, more serious, more demanding of a reader’s attention. It’s the kind of book you want to start reading again as soon as you reach the last page, the kind that will keep you thinking for a long time.

The title is worth special attention. It comes from a quote by Simone Weil, who wrote, “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him, ‘What are you going through?'”

It’s not by accident that Nunez leaves the question mark out in her title. As she explains in the interview cited above, the title is a statement that acknowledges we’re all going through something. It’s less a question than an invitation to share where we are in our lives and where we are heading.

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Mark Willen