In her latest novel, Sigrid Nunez's narrator, an unnamed writer, joins an unnamed friend on a grim and sorrowful errand: The friend, a journalist with terminal cancer, wants to end her own life in a quaint rental house, and she wants someone else nearby.
"What Are You Going Through," is broken into three periods — the time preceding this request, followed by the days of its attempted fulfillment, followed by the aftermath. All of the sections are concerned not only with the friend's intentions, but also with a host of intellectual matters that dovetail with the plight of incurable illness.
The novel devotes a considerable amount of space to highlights from a presentation made by the narrator's ex, in which he expounds on climate change. "It was useless, the man said, to deny that suffering … lay ahead, or that there'd be any escaping it."
This sets up a naturally melancholic atmosphere, though the mood is often lightened by the narrator's curiosity and compassion, and the witty rapport she shares with her dying friend.
Both women are furiously engaged with language; the friend remarks that she would like the term "fatal" to replace "terminal," because "Terminal makes me think of bus stations."
Nunez repeatedly describes the act of reading, dwelling on it, giving it sanctity and heft; the narrator makes brief nods to her past relationships but delivers long-winded summaries and reviews of books she has read, or started to read. "If you put a group of women in a book, you have 'women's fiction,' " she notes. "To be shunned by almost all male readers and no few female ones as well." This novel is an unsubtle retort to such a shunning.
Before she retreats to the rental house with her ill friend, the narrator, quoting "a famous playwright," remarks that there are "no uninteresting human lives, and that you'd discover this if you were willing to sit and listen to people." She offers this service to her friend — the friend talks for hours; the narrator listens, encouraging — but the narrator offers only minimal glimpses of her own life. At one point, she gives a richer recounting of a cat's history than her own. Her ode to the importance of story, while declining to tell her own, can be taxing for the reader, true as it may be to her character.
Among the various discussions the narrator enjoys with her friend are questions of genre — how does a mystery novel work? What about romance and fairy tales? What are the limits of language, powerful as it is? "We talk glibly about finding the right words, but about the most important things, those words we never find," the narrator says. Nunez, bold and undaunted, approaches those stories anyway.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared in Electric Literature, LennyLetter, Narrative, the Millions, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-16 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
What Are You Going Through
By: Sigrid Nunez.
Publisher: Riverhead, 210 pages, $26.