Famous at last for her previous novel, “The Friend,” Sigrid Nunez strikes again
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When Sigrid Nunez began her seventh novel, 2018’s “The Friend,” she decided to return to her roots as a writer, a narrator’s voice in a conversational style filled with asides and a low-key intimacy leavened with emotional detachment.
It was a good time to get back to the style of her first novel, published in 1995. Slim, interior novels have earned more attention in recent years despite (or perhaps because of) their emphasis on observation over plot. “The Friend” — about a woman mourning the suicide of a close friend with the help of an enormous Great Dane — propelled Nunez from the provinces of the prototypical “writer’s writer” to the New York Times bestseller list and the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction.
“What Are You Going Through,” Nunez’s new novel, carries on in that signature voice — a voice Nunez discovered after numerous false starts. “A Feather on the Breath of God,” her debut, drew on Nunez’s childhood in the Staten Island projects but was mostly about her Chinese Panamanian father and German mother, parents with no shared language.
Over time, Nunez, now 69, leapt adventurously into other styles, subjects and genres, including the plot-driven “Salvation City,” about a teenage boy who survives a pandemic, and “Sempre Susan,” a memoir of Nunez’s 1970s friendship with Susan Sontag and romantic relationship with Sontag’s son.
But when she sat down to write again, she had more private and pressing concerns. Several people she knew were contemplating suicide in their middle years. Her original narrative style felt like a natural way to address her new preoccupations. “I went back and found my voice with ‘The Friend,’” says Nunez on a phone call. There was certainly no commercial calculation. “I did want that quiet, intimate tone again.”
The winners of the 2018 National Book Awards were announced at a ceremony in New York on Wednesday night, with almost all of the prestigious literary prizes going to authors of color.
When “The Friend” took off, the New York Times cheekily called her an “overnight sensation.” But Nunez felt no mid-career iteration of the second-book jitters. In fact, she says, she felt no pressure at all, partly because the modicum of celebrity came so late in her career and partly because she was already deeply into “What Are You Going Through.”
The book does feel continuous with Nunez’s last. This time around, the narrator is asked by a terminally ill friend to stay by her side as she prepares to kill herself before cancer overwhelms her.
It isn’t just suicide and grief that link the two novels. “It’s recognizably the same narrator,” Nunez says. In fact, she believes, “it’s the same narrator from my first novel, grown older. My life is very much influenced by my past, and my way of looking at the world hasn’t changed.”
That said, the heroine is not some auto-fictional “Sigrid Nunez”; it isn’t her at all. Sure, both author and character reference other writers in conversation, but that’s a common enough trait. Nunez notes that Virginia Woolf and Flannery O’Connor also stared at people and listened to strangers’ conversations, always gathering material. “I don’t mind my own business,” says Nunez, who has mastered the art of comparing herself to literary icons without a whiff of pretension. But she’s more open than the narrator, who also has “a passivity I don’t identify with.”
The voice is crucial, because the plot is minimal. Both this novel and “The Friend” are glimpses into the lives and minds of anyone who comes into contact with the narrator. It often feels like eavesdropping — quietly collecting stories firsthand and sometimes second- or thirdhand. (A man in her building courtyard tells a story about his mother, then about his friend and his friend’s mother.)
The plot isn’t just secondary; it’s also unplanned. Nunez never outlines a story in advance. “I start with the beginning and move on and realize I’ve committed myself to certain things by putting things on paper,” she says. “I’m groping my way forward.”
This is “nerve-wracking and requires a certain leap of faith,” she admits, especially when it comes to finding a proper resolution. She writes in small batches and revises them as she proceeds.
The one thing Nunez definitely planned to explore in “The Friend” was the emotional aftershock of a suicide. She has also long been intrigued by the bonds people form with their pets. (Her 1998 book “Mitz” was a semi-fictional biography of Woolf’s marmoset.) Still, she did not foresee that the soul of “The Friend” would be a 180-pound Great Dane named Apollo, bequeathed by the belated friend. The dog simply “showed up” when she reached page 33.
Nunez decided to open her new book with the narrator on her way to a lecture about how humanity is doomed while in town to visit a terminally ill friend. “Euthanasia was not something I thought of beforehand or wanted to write a book about,” says Nunez. “It just happened.”
“What Are You Going Through” gives the supporting role to a cat, a rescue living in an AirBnb who gets to tell its life story. Nunez confirms that she is a cat person, but the echo of the Great Dane wasn’t deliberate. “I had amazing doubts about the cat,” she says. “I never liked talking animals in fiction.”
The cat’s narration could be interpreted as the narrator’s dream. There was a similar ambiguity in “The Friend,” a twist in the second-to-last chapter glimpsing an alternate version of the story. Not unlike the talking cat, it’s both a departure from plotlessness — giving the ending a heartbreaking heft — and the flourish of a writer who never stops experimenting.
While this duet of novels is infused with pain and suffering, it’s no grim descent into hopelessness. There’s a lightness in their peregrinations, the product of a writer who is charming and cheery in conversation — and who relies on humor even in the darkest times, both in writing and life.
“A lot of human experience is sorrowful; there’s so much loss in life, and the longer you live the more you lose, both people and dreams,” Nunez says. “But when you’re writing for other people to read, there always has to be some level of beauty and entertainment in it. It’s perfectly possible to write about very sad things but to make it enjoyable to read, and even uplifting.”
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