What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is one of my highlights of recent reading years, and it has become so much a part of my own reading autobiography that it’s hard to believe that is has only been in my memory bank for about eighteen months. I already feel the same way about Nunez’s latest work, What Are You Going Through. Though not related to that earlier novel, it is, in many ways, a companion piece, working across the common concerns of friendship and mortality. Replete with Nunez’s incisive observations of human foibles that I found so entertaining and invigorating about The Friend, it also shares the same critical literary sensibility, referring extensively to the work of other writers and thinkers.
The book begins with its narrator attending a lecture at a university. Unfolding beyond this in the first half of the novel is something less like a plot, and more like an expedition of thought and everyday experience with the writer. You can trust Nunez, because she’ll take you where you need to go (truly, is there any better kind of writer than this?). She eventually introduces one of the narrator’s friends into the novel: the kind of friend who has been part of the narrator’s life for a long time, but whose presence has been intermittent, sometimes distant, but always a companion on the journey. This friend is dying of cancer, and asks the narrator to support her decision to take charge of her own fatality, but more than this: to accompany her as she ends her life on her own terms.
What then unfolds is much more plot-driven, as the two work together pragmatically to plan a journey that resembles a luxury life-affirming/life-ending vacation. It is heartbreaking but often hilarious, as the writer, her characters, and the reader alike, deliberate on the uncomfortable reality of the common event that all human life must go through: its conclusion. Brilliantly clever but also modest, What Are You Going Through is a really wonderful novel. It asks that we practice the art of making ourselves available to others, a skill that all of us need to master, because we need it of others.