On reading Sigrid Nunez for the first time

Her novel what are you going through wasn’t what I was expecting…and that’s a good thing.

I’ve never read Sigrid Nunez before. Apparently, she was mostly a writer’s writer before her book The Friend won the American National Book Award and became a New York Times bestseller.

I’ve started with her the wrong way around because I’ve just finished what are you going through which is a loose sequel to The Friend. The narrator is a writer. I’m not usually a fan of the writer-as-narrator set up. It’s always felt a bit lazy to me. Really? A writer? Again? There are so many other jobs a main character could be and realistically, as a writer, they probably need to have a couple of those other jobs anyway.

This writer has a friend who is dying of cancer. The friend wants to end her life and asks the narrator to be there. She won’t know when it’s going to happen and she’ll pretend she didn’t know it was going to happen but her friend wants her there to make sure that everything afterwards happens like it should.

I’ve mentioned before that my dad died from cancer. He was sick for over 20 months and even though it was all a long time ago, I’m not always in the mood to read a cancer book or watch a cancer movie. But the way Nunez meanders through a plot, it doesn’t read like a cancer book. It’s something more way organic and indefinable.

It’s been a month of books I didn’t finish and I’m going to be honest and say that I nearly put this one down. Who’s this about? and Where’s this going? and We haven’t even met the friend who’s going to die yet! were some of my thoughts.

But Nunez doesn’t do plots directly from A to B and I was glad I eventually settled into the digressions because if you can hold off on the need for immediate and constant narrative movement, then you’re rewarded with the simple generosity of knowledge.

She makes a little bread-crumb trail for the curious, sharing everything from movies (Jesus, you know sounds like nothing I’ve ever watched before) to books and quotes (who knew that there was a Henry James letter out there on grief?).

And so her characters pootle on. They talk about people they used to know and situations they were in. In conversational asides, Nunez conjures dynamics and dilemmas so rich that they could easily be their own book. I used to worry about there being a finite number of good ideas, but she throws them in so casually and frequently that running out of material is obviously not something on her radar.

This LA Times article is a great read because she talks about her writing process which puts the discursive nature of her narrative in context. She also admits her detours and byways method of writing a story isn’t something publishers had a lot of patience with (they are described as ‘slim interior novels’) until she became a bestseller.

This book was nearly not the right book at the right time for me but now I have The Friend sitting on my bookstack and another backlist to add to my ever-expanding book list.

If you enjoyed reading this and want blog updates, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below.

One thought on “On reading Sigrid Nunez for the first time”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s