Sigrid Nunez is on a roll. She's tapped into a smart, wry voice which feels right for our times, as do her concerns with friendship, empathy, loss, and loneliness.
In 2018, Nunez garnered well-deserved raves — and a National Book Award — for her sixth novel, The Friend, about a woman mourning the suicide of a fellow writer, who finds surprising solace after agreeing to take in his bereft, arthritic Great Dane. What Are You Going Through is a worthy followup — a companion piece, if you will — that considers the comforts and emotional risks of a different sort of companionship.
The narrator, another unmarried, unnamed, childless writer, agrees to a more difficult, startling request from an old but not particularly close writer friend, who is dying of cancer: To help her die. Specifically, to go away with her and stay until she is ready to take the euthanasia pills that will end her life. "I will not go out in mortifying anguish," the friend insists, adding, "Cancer can't get me if I get it first."
It takes Nunez's meandering novel a while to get to this arrangement, whose dramatic potential is of course intense. That's in part because she is less interested in drama than in empathy.
Like the writer-narrator in Rachel Cusk's Outline trilogy — which this loose-limbed narrative resembles at times — Nunez's narrator is a magpie for others' stories. "Women's stories are often sad stories," she writes. She threads some of these woeful tales through her book, along with references to a few of the saddest stories literature and film have to offer. There are encounters with a cantankerous shut-in neighbor whom she visits as a favor to the woman's worried son, and even a cat's sorry saga about his tortured life before his adoption. Ford Maddox Ford's novel The Good Soldier and Yasujiro Ozu's movie Tokyo Story set the bar for pathos. Her point? "No matter how sad, a beautifully told story lifts you up."
As in The Friend, there's a metafictional aspect to this profoundly literary novel: Nunez again writes of the challenges of being a writer, including concerns about getting things right, and the morality of milking others' experiences.
In her epigraph to The Friend, a quote by Nicholson Baker, Nunez flagged one of her central concerns as a writer: "The question any novel is really trying to answer is, Is life worth living?" What Are You Going Through takes its epigraph (and uncannily apt title for these times) from French philosopher 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?'" Nunez points out that the question is even more potent in French: "Quel est ton tourment?"
The simple act of making such an inquiry demonstrates a measure of humanity. Nunez's narrator asserts that there are "no uninteresting human lives, and that you'd discover this if you were willing to sit and listen to people." But, she adds wryly, "sometimes you had to be willing to sit for a very long time."
Unlike many notable works about mortality, such as Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Wit, Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a dying English professor, What Are You Going Through is less about the nitty-gritty of dying than about the difficulty of accurately capturing the swarm of feelings surrounding death. "No matter how hard we try to put the most important things into words, it is always like toe-dancing in clogs," Nunez writes. Her narrator fears that "language would end up falsifying everything."
The marvel of this novel is that it encompasses so much sadness yet is not grim. For one thing, the narrator's friend is the type of person who deflects difficulty with sardonic humor. She remarks that she could use a dummies' guide to dying, and jokes that there were "enough bones of contention" between her and her daughter "to make a whole skeleton." Moved to tears when the narrator agrees to help her, she texts, "I promise to make it as much fun as possible."
The two women do have fun. They watch old movies, read fairy tales, and laugh at the slapstick absurdities of their situation. But they also connect more deeply than they had expected. As in The Friend, this newfound attachment — to a dying person rather than a dog this time — brings joy, but also creates a foothold for loss and grief. "Soon it will end, this fairy tale. This saddest time that has also been one of the happiest times in my life will pass," the narrator acknowledges soberly. "And I'll be alone."
Despite its serpentine path, What Are You Going Through explicitly aims for and pretty much manages to hit all of William Faulkner's prescribed goalposts for writers: "love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice." Nunez has written another deeply humane reminder of the great solace of both companionship and literature.