| Book Reviews

Sigrid Nunez Asks How Should We Live When All Seems Doomed

In her poignant and meditative new novel, “What Are You Going Through,” Sigrid Nunez writes as if we sit with the narrator in her living room, listening to her thoughts on companionship, on death, on suffering, on hope, all while drinking tea across the table. It’s impossible to not sit enthralled, our hands hugging our metaphorical mugs, the liquid cooling inside because we can’t pull our attention from the literal page. This narrator, unnamed as in Nunez’s last novel “The Friend” which according to the NY Times made her an overnight success, is a universal, transcendent witness. She doesn’t have the answers but does share tales from a cache of other unnamed characters: her friend, her neighbor, her ex, a father and daughter seated nearby at a diner, a randy old man, and even an adopted cat rehoused at her AirBNB. For each, she shares what they are going through, and even though their stories are sometimes sad, they are not grim, not devastating, but the kind of stories that stir something inside of you, often towards greater awareness.

Still, the novel opens with a sense of impending doom. Before a visit to her ailing friend in the hospital, the narrator attends her ex’s talk on climate change and the inevitable death of our civilization. “It was over, he said. It was too late, we had dithered too long” and it was useless “to deny that suffering of immense magnitude lay ahead, or that there’d be any escaping it.” 

In response, he provides the question, “How then should we live?” 

This is a central question of the subsequent story. On a second trip to see the same friend—still sick with cancer and having forgone further treatment, the narrator is presented with a momentous request. The friend asks her to be her companion at the end, as she awaits death, which she plans to orchestrate herself. She’s bought the pills necessary. She wants “a good death,” one “free of pain, or at least not convulsing in agony. Going out with poise, with a little dignity.” The narrator is not the first person she’s asked, but she is the one who agrees. Overcome with relief, the friend sobs, and then promises to “make it as much fun as possible.” 

The two travel to a coastal rental home in New England to live out the remainder in tandem. The narrator—a writer—plans to keep a journal of the experience, but the experience—‘adventure’ they call it—proves beyond words. Instead, what develops is an inexplicable coalescence of love. “I’ve become attuned to her in the most incredible way,” the narrator says. “I’ll be just about to ask her if she wants something to drink and she’ll say, Would you mind getting me some orange juice? I reach for the remote and at the very same instant she says, Can we change the channel?” 

This waiting for death, as the narrator draws closer to an old friend who will die, soon, might sound too heart-breaking, but, as the book itself suggests, “no matter how sad, a beautifully told story lifts you up,” and, not to forget, “there’ve been quite a few slapstick moments” as well. The two women laugh, they make jokes, they flood the house. There is a tale about a girl named Winnie the Poop and an obsession with a saint of a painting in the living room. At times, the narrator is afraid, uncertain, weary of the mundanity, but how then should we live? With each other, the book seems to be saying. 

Beyond the intimate and sometimes hilarious chats with her friend, the narrator offers the reader further anecdotes and insights on aging and beauty and nursing homes and isolation and books and silence and forgiveness and even telephone scams. All of it complicated emotional territory, making for a multihued survey of what we are all going through. For the reader, Nunez and her narrator are guides as if through meditation, curiosity and reflection the writing’s momentum. 

Sigrid Nunez pulled the title of the book from a quote by French philosopher Simone Weil: “The love of our neighbors in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him, ‘What are you going through?’” So, the work isn’t a discourse about the right-to-die movement or about climate change, but about our response to any tragedy or pain, in that we need to care for one another. It is a love story. It is an ode to human connection, to the humanity in just listening to someone else. In service to her friend, as she talks for hours, the narrator listens, giving her the space to speak her existence in the days she has left. This is how the reader finds a seat at the table. Instead of attempting perfect explanations for indescribable experiences, Nunez boldly approaches stories that show them, with details and questions, by acknowledging that words often fail and human conversation is often long-winded and boring, but we have to keep trying anyway. 

We have to keep asking what our fellow humans are going through, and we have to keep caring enough to listen, even if imperfectly.  

Sigrid Nunez has published seven novels, including A Feather on the Breath of God, The Last of Her Kind, Salvation City, The Friend, and, most recently, What Are You Going Through. She is also the author of Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. The Friend, a New York Times bestseller, won the 2018 National Book Award and was a finalist for the 2019 Simpson/Joyce Carol Oates Prize. In France, it was longlisted for the 2019 Prix Femina and named a finalist for the 2019 Prix du Meilleure Livre. It has also been shortlisted for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award. Nunez’s other honors and awards include a Whiting Writer’s Award, a Berlin Prize Fellowship, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, the Rome Prize in Literature, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. What Are You Going Through was released September 8 from Riverhead Books and can be purchased here

Melissa Wade

is a fiction candidate in George Mason University’s creative writing MFA program. Recently, she’s won the Alan Cheuse International Writers travel grant, as well as the GMU Thesis Fellowship, both in support of her novel project concerning assisted-suicide tourism in Switzerland. When not writing, she teaches literature and writing courses at GMU and with PEN/Faulkner, as well as works as editor-in-chief of phoebe.

Comments are closed.