“What Are You Going Through” is a companion piece to her bestselling “The Friend”
FOR ALMOST a quarter of a century, Sigrid Nunez maintained the quiet life of a writer’s writer. Critically acclaimed but under-known, she published her first novel in 1995 and then many others; but she supported herself mostly with teaching gigs at colleges in and around New York, where she has lived “like a grad student” in the same downtown Manhattan flat since the 1980s. Then in 2018 her eighth book, “The Friend”, became a surprise bestseller and went on to win the National Book Award for fiction. Many of her other books are now reaching readers around the world.
The sudden attention is bittersweet for Ms Nunez, who is 69. Though such success would have been “tremendously useful” earlier in her career, she says she is grateful that she could “develop anonymously as a writer”, without the pressure of fame. Her new status has meant she speaks to larger audiences and can cut back on her teaching, but her daily life and feelings about her craft are generally unchanged. She was already well into her next novel by the time “The Friend” climbed bestseller lists. “What Are You Going Through”, out now, is not exactly a sequel, she says, but “these books belong together.” Both are “preoccupied with death”. And with ageing: “At a certain age, there is only one subject.”
As in “The Friend”, the new book’s narrator bears a striking resemblance to the author. Unnamed and unmarried, she is a writer in Manhattan who charts in herself and others some of the losses that come with age: decisions rued; hopes dashed; looks eroded. In the earlier novel the narrator’s friend confronted his waning sexual charisma; the young students who slept with him were no longer motivated by desire, but rather by the “thrill of bringing an older man in a position of authority to his knees”. In the new book, the costs of time are seen from a female point of view. “You get used to admiration,” says an elderly and “once beautiful” woman. Then gradually you become “an ordinary, undesirable person with a common, forgettable face”.
“What Are You Going Through” considers what it means to die well. A character suffering from terminal cancer plans to take her own life in order to wrest a more dignified ending from the disease. But as with “The Friend”, the book’s appeal lies less in the plot, such as it is, than in the wandering thoughts and insightful observations that it sets off. “I think it’s largely true,” the narrator reckons, “that there are no truly stupid human beings, no uninteresting human lives, and that you’d discover this if you were willing to sit and listen to people. But sometimes you had to be willing to sit for a very long time.” The psychological focus of these stories was “liberating”, Ms Nunez says, as it let her write from the heart. “The narrator’s way of seeing the world is my way of seeing the world.”
Coming of age at a time when motherhood still took precedence over many women’s careers, Ms Nunez forwent children to protect hers. Yet she does not wish she had been born later, as she sees how the shifting rules of identity politics have left aspiring writers worried about saying the wrong thing. For example, she has noticed that, to signal sensitivity, stories by young male students often feature a woman menstruating. “You’re not going to write the most powerful, truthful stuff if you’re always concerned about your brand.”
But the idiosyncrasies of students, which she recounts with wry humour in “The Friend”, have not made her cynical. That, she says, would be incompatible with the compassion and “capacity for wonder” that she believes are essential for fiction. “I don’t think you need other people to show you the bad side of things,” she says. Or, as the narrator of her new novel observes: “Be kind, because everyone you meet is going through a struggle.” ■
This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline "Cool to be kind"