The be-all and end-all questions of our lives

Joan Frank

THE WASHINGTON POST – “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” That adage (variously attributed) shows up online so often it’s become almost invisible. But it’s resurrected with punch in What Are You Going Through.

The title of Sigrid Nunez’s disconcerting new novel comes from French philosopher Simone Weil, who believed that asking that very question was what love of one’s neighbour truly meant.

What Are You Going Through initially resembles Rachel Cusk’s fiction – narrated by a fiercely intelligent teacher and writer, describing encounters with a series of individuals whose difficult stories accrue like mosaic pieces to form a painfully human tableau. Nunez’s prose, too, seems to echo Cusk’s cool, flat distance.

“I went to hear a man give a talk,” the narrator begins. “The event was held on a college campus. The man was a professor … a well-known author … I would not even have been in that town, had it not been for a coincidence.”

Nunez – whose previous novel, The Friend, won the 2018 National Book Award – has long taught creative writing; thus, these pages dish some authoritative dirt about that world. Here’s the department head who’s invited the above speaker:

“She is a familiar type: the glam academic, the intellectual vamp. Someone at pains for it to be known that although smart and well educated, although a feminist and a woman in a position of power, the lady is no frump, no boring nerd.”

But Nunez’s project has grander designs than mere literary satire or clever portraiture (though streaks of these spice the prose). It will meditate – at length, in earnest, often graphically – upon whatever life, death and love can presently mean.

The above speaker’s message cuts to the chase: We’re doomed.

“Our world and our civilisation [will] not endure,” he says, and goes on to list the many signs of that imminent apocalypse, including our failure to control the spread of weapons of mass destruction; the refugee crisis; cyberterrorism; bioterrorism and, yes, “the inevitable next great flu pandemic.”

No escape. Also, better not go on having children. What’s left?

“The only moral, meaningful course for a civilisation facing its own end,” the speaker says, is “to learn how to ask forgiveness and to atone in some tiny measure for the devastating harm we had done to our human family and to our fellow creatures and to the beautiful earth. To love and forgive one another as best we could. And to learn how to say goodbye.”

This overture, taken with the fact that the narrator’s about to visit an old friend succumbing to cancer, may baffle readers for its impenetrable bleakness – apt as that may be for our present straits. But because it’s Nunez, long admired for her fearless, ruminative, sharply insightful work, we push on. (The doomsday speaker later proves significant.) In the story to follow, the narrator’s mortally ill friend, anticipating the horrors of cancer treatment, confesses she means to end matters early, with pills. “Cancer can’t get me if I get me first.” She asks the narrator’s help in renting a pleasant retreat where the two can dwell together until the friend chooses to exit.

There they settle in, and talk.

Over this structure, Nunez’s narrator layers a book’s worth of memories and Reflections – told Decameron-style as stories-within-the-story: struggles with children, lovers, husbands, money, art.

These accounts range with great freedom, even as dwindling time tightens the frame: cultural and ethical ordeals; books, films, music, philosophy, gossip. The narrator despairs of keeping “a record of my friend’s last days” as a likely betrayal, not of her friend’s privacy “but of the experience itself. . . . Language would end up falsifying everything.”

Yet language is what conveys this fraught inventory. Nunez’s narrator folds incident, anecdote, history, rumor – even fairy tales – into a plaintive litany. Toward the novel’s end she describes a podcast of terminally ill people (including her friend) mulling their lives aloud, their suffering dignified by individuation. Replying to a social worker’s query, “What do you think is the meaning of your life?” the narrator’s friend snaps: “That it stops.”

One’s moved by the scope and pith of this novel’s ambition, as it addresses our biggest questions by naming the particular – the way the dying recited what mattered to them in WimWenders’s iconic film Wings of Desire. But most striking may be how Nunez’s narrator transfigures, through deepening compassion, from a wry, circumspect observer into someone raked raw with hapless love for her vanishing friend: “Every now and then she would squeeze my hand … as if she had squeezed my heart.”

What’s more, the narrator already foresees memory’s distancing of this extraordinary interval, lending it “that taint of the surreal.” This infuriates her. “Life is but a dream. Could there be a crueler notion?”

Still, it’s the here-and-now of What Are You Going Through that spears us, its chorale-like testimonies, their preemptive requiem. There are those, muses the narrator, “who upon seeing someone else suffering think, That could happen to me, and those who think, That will never happen to me. The first kind . . . help us to endure, the second kind make life hell.”