Sigrid Nunez’s “What You Are Going Through” (out Sept. 8) is a short novel, but it doesn’t leave you feeling shortchanged. In fact, quite the opposite — especially if you’re an older reader facing the questions of what life, mortality and human connection all add up to.
The book’s stark truths, silkily captured, touch on everything from “[t]he boundless capacity of the human mind for self-delusion” to the way young people view old age as “a very distant thing, more like an option than a law of nature.” Cancer, failed relationships, global doom … they’re all here. But the book’s tone is set by a character who, while facing all these problems, promises to make them “as much fun as possible.”
Like Virginia Woolf, National Book Award winner Nunez (“The Friend”) is more interested in the tensions that animate the fabric of life than in narrative pyrotechnics. She’s fascinated by the foibles of memory, the difficulty of establishing the facts of people’s personal histories and the rich minefield that language can present. (“Untold is a good word,” she observes. “Meaning, of course, not recounted or narrated. But also, too much or too many to say. The untold story of his youth. Untold suffering.”)
Like Rachel Cusk in her “Outline” trilogy, Nunez is a kind of Scheherazade in reverse, gathering stories instead of dispensing them. “[O]ther people’s lives, and specifically their remembrance of things past,” she says, “are a source of genuine interest to me.”
Indeed, one of her deepest regrets concerns all the life stories she missed when she was young.
“It always amazes me to think back to when I was an adolescent, and to remember how little attention my friends and I paid to one another’s parents and grandparents,” she recalls. “They had been through some of the most extreme things life can throw at a person, like characters in the movies we saw, but although we might have had some vague idea of this … it could not provoke the slightest curiosity.” Instead, she recalls, all their focus was on each other’s clothes and makeup.
In later life, Nunez’s narrator — now a writer — pays astute attention. Among the people whose stories capture her imagination is a frail, senile man still lusting after women. “Here he was, in his eighties at least,” she tells us. “No memory, no legs, no wind — yet how the mere sight of a bit of female flesh could knock him off his perch.” Then there’s the aging widow with an antic way of handling telephone scammers. When told by one that they’ve kidnapped one of her grandchildren for ransom, her response is: “That’s okay, I got more, and I never liked that one anyway.”
Nunez even draws us into the mind of a stray cat whose story of finding a safe home is told in its own words: “I did my job … I kept the mice away.”
With all of them, she zeroes in on what they are going through. The person she is most focused on is a fellow writer enduring cancer treatment — successfully at first, then not so successfully. When her ailing friend asks for help in a difficult task, the narrator, with considerable trepidation, says yes.
The key notes of the novel are its stoicism and its humor. Farce keeps intruding on desperation. Nunez’s narrator may be a no-frills realist, but that doesn’t automatically make her a pragmatist. And her friend’s behavior follows a similar pattern. Mishaps, panic and deepening affection ensue.
Nunez lends her narrator a cultural sensibility as eclectic as her own, and the book’s reference points encompass everything from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech (addressing “the old universal truths — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice”) to John Waters’ droll observation that “if there really was a Supreme Being who had to listen to people’s prayers all the time, he would go out of his mind.”
A second crucial thread in the book concerns the narrator’s relationship with her ex, who’s made a lecture-circuit career out of proclaiming how humanity seems bent on its own destruction. “To any intelligent alien,” he declares, “we would appear to be in the grip of a death wish.”
The bewildering thing about the novel — and the source of its greatest pleasure — is that it’s far more bracing than depressing. Its frank confrontation of bleak realities is exactly what energizes it: “Messy life. Unfair life. Life that must be dealt with.”
The result is a book as luminous as it is deep and as slippery as it is firmly grounded. As its narrator observes, “[N]o matter how sad, a beautifully told story lifts you up.”
“What Are You Going Through” is as beautifully told as they come.
“What Are You Going Through” by Sigrid Nunez, Riverhead Books, 210 pp., $26