WHAT ARE YOU GOING THROUGH
By Sigrid Nunez
Reading Sigrid Nunez’s absorbing new novel is somewhat akin to having a long conversation with someone who is telling you something very important, but is telling it in a very quiet voice. You have to really pay attention. Be assured, however, that the experience will be worth it. You will emerge calmer, meditative, more thoughtful, as if you have benefited from an excellent literary massage of sorts.
In “What Are You Going Through,” Nunez tells the simplest of stories — about a woman accompanying a terminally ill friend through her last months — and expands it into an exploration of the largest of themes: nothing less than the realities of living and dying in this world and how we feel about both. In the opening pages, the woman goes to visit her dying friend in the hospital and attends a talk at a local college given by a famous academic we later discover is her ex. He is the author of a viral article about the imminent apocalypse of climate change, how “It was all over,” that “Our world and our civilization would not endure” and “We must live and die in this new knowledge.” He goes on to say that it is useless “to deny that suffering of immense magnitude lay ahead, or that there’d be any escaping it.” The stoic dispassion of the speaker belies the horror of what he is foretelling, and the narrator wonders if he will offer “a crumb, if only a crumb it be, of hope.”
This is, of course, a parallel to what the narrator’s friend is experiencing as she faces the end of her life. After recovering enough to go home and plan how she wants the remainder of her life to be, she decides to end her life on her own terms. To this end, the sick friend persuades the narrator (the lack of names renders the prose plain-spoken and somehow transcendent) to be her companion on her last chapter, although she confides with an amused expression, “I know your feelings won’t be hurt when I say that you weren’t my first choice.” After the narrator agrees, the friend texts, “I promise to make it as fun as possible,” then sends her photos of the house she wants to rent as if they are going on vacation together.
Her sick friend is perhaps more ambivalent than she seems. Upon arriving at the rental, she bursts into tears when she realizes she has forgotten the pills back home. Later, pills safely retrieved, she curses at the narrator for daring to suggest she might harbor any doubts. They settle in to make the business of dying as pleasant as possible.
The specter of future generations hangs over all of these issues: the moral question of whether to bring children into such a bleak and foundering world. The ex (who becomes a somewhat regular confidant) posits this as a moral dilemma; he is alienated from his son by having been vocally appalled that he is choosing to have multiple children. The friend’s relationship with her daughter has been fraught since birth (“I’d swear the kid was a changeling”) and they have minimal contact or warmth. And there is an odd and distinct lack of pleasure in children (“The truth is, every time I see a newborn now my heart sinks,” the ex admits), although it’s more melancholy than misanthropic.
Like the best of our writers, Nunez is a bit of a seer and a prophet (to wit: “Salvation City,” her 2010 novel about a flu pandemic), and so it is discomfiting to imagine that what she presents here as the state of the world could be true. It was with some relief I read these lines of beauty and hope during the friends’ stay in the house: “Golden hour, magic hour, l’heure bleue. Evenings when the beauty of the changing sky made us both go still and dreamy. Sunlight falling at an angle across the lawn so that it touched our elevated feet, then moved up our bodies like a long slow blessing.” And then, at the end of this elegant passage: “Infinitely rich, infinitely beautiful. Everything was going to be all right.”
As her friend moves inexorably closer to the end, they stop speaking as “the farther along she was on her journey, the less she wanted to be distracted.” They are now back in the friend’s apartment after an accidental flood in the rental and the narrator spends her time quietly ministering to her friend’s needs. During this period, the narrator vividly recalls past friends, past situations, as if vicariously experiencing the flashes of one’s past life that are said to occur on the eve of death. Nunez’s unerring and quietly observant eye burrows further and further into these experiences as if they will unearth an answer of sorts. And she realizes that “this saddest time that has also been one of the happiest times of my life will pass. And I’ll be alone.” Beauty, friendship, nature, art: These are the salves to loneliness and despair, and Nunez offers them all in this searching look into life and death.