What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez: A review
Sigrid Nunez's new book features an unnamed and undescribed narrator's conversations and interactions with a number of people she comes in contact with. People in her apartment building, people at her gym, random people that she meets, an ex-lover. I say the narrator is undescribed but we know she is a writer in late middle age and she's having trouble writing. She gathers these stories of the people that she talks with and perhaps if she's lucky, they will someday evolve into a narrative that the writer can put on paper.
The main conversation, or series of conversations, that she has is with a friend who is terminally ill with cancer. The friend had fought cancer for years and had been in remission for a while but now the disease has come back and the medical profession holds out no hope for her recovery. The friend has decided to take her own life but she wants someone to be with her or at least be in the next room when she does it. She has chosen the narrator as that person and asks her to be present in the house when she takes the pills that will see her out.
Well, what would you do in such circumstances? Do you acquiesce to the friend's request or do you say no? Either answer offers a moral conundrum and possible pitfalls, including, of course, the chance that you might be charged as an accessory or even for manslaughter if the police misconstrue the circumstances of the friend's death. The narrator weighs all of this and eventually decides to aid her friend. The friend will leave a note explaining that she is committing suicide on her own and without help from anyone and the narrator will just be present in another room of the house.
And so we get the narrator relating her conversations and interactions over a period of time with her dying friend. Meanwhile, her friend searches for a house in which to end her life, preferably in a blue state. Yes, the political divide is a consideration even in this final decision. The action takes place in the current time and there are takes on the influence of Fox News especially on the elderly who watch it all day and on the #MeToo movement. The narrator talks to an elderly neighbor who opines that the country really dodged a bullet by failing to elect Hillary Clinton who she describes as "brazenly immoral and corrupt, a person who lied with every breath and was a complete incompetent to boot"! Her son worries that Fox has planted a chip in her brain. Then there is the discovery that Albert Einstein was prone to racist stereotyping in his private writing and was likely abusive to his wife and the narrator's friend remarks, "So I guess there goes the theory of relativity."
In Nunez's previous book, The Friend, (which was wonderful) a big dog was on the cover and a central part of the story. In this one, there is a cat. The cat narrates its own story of being abandoned in a dumpster and then rescued to live a life of luxury with its savior.
This is a novel about facing death and, as such, it has an air of sorrow about it, but at times it is also laugh-out-loud funny. When the friends rent an Airbnb in New England for the final scene, slapstick hilarity occasionally breaks out and they come to refer to it as a sitcom called "Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia." In fact, the title seems appropriate.
This book feels very personal, almost as if the author has some experience with such a situation, or perhaps I'm reading too much into it. Nunez is a sensitive and talented writer with imagination to spare, so perhaps she's merely imagined what it would be like and she has written it so brilliantly that the reader, too, can feel what it must be like to be in such a situation. At one point, the narrator says, "The real reason I had agreed to help my friend was that I knew that, in her place, I would have hoped to be able to do exactly what she now wanted to do. I would not be able to escape the feeling that this was all a kind of rehearsal, that my friend was showing me the way."
And that is exactly what good literature like this book does: It shows us the way to live humanely and with honor.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars