September 2020

by Adam Rivett

‘What Are You Going Through’ by Sigrid Nunez
The late-life author of ‘The Friend’ delivers a chastening and discursive novel of mourning

Having found success at the age of 67 with 2018’s The Friend, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Sigrid Nunez is obsessed with time in her new novel. Everything the book touches – climate change, parenthood, illness – is defined against ageing’s inescapable defilement, likewise its streamlined clarity of expression and attentiveness to the lives of others. It moves at speed, in short bursts, in search of the essence of things.

The plot of What Are You Going Through (Virago) is gently accumulative and pleasingly unhurried. An unnamed narrator – no autofiction here, it’s too late in the day for that game – attends a lecture by an ex-partner on the coming ravages of climate change. In a bar after the event, the narrator overhears a conversation between a father and daughter about their recently departed wife and mother. Later that night, reading a generic thriller, the narrator ponders the mechanics of murder and the natural shape of stories. And so forth. Nothing is linked for the sake of narrative momentum, the voices and lives of others (and other cultural objects) are happily given centre stage; observations and conversations exist only to chime thematically with the book’s other pages. When something resembling a story does emerge in the second half – involving a sick friend requiring the narrator’s assistance in ending her life – it feels like the natural extension of the book’s method, while never closing the writing off to passing distractions and reverberations.

While this subtle retreat of the typically opinionated first-person perspective might draw comparisons with Rachel Cusk’s recent Outline trilogy, Nunez’s sensibility is more assertive than the artful elision of Cusk’s narratorial voice. Many of the book’s highlights are short essayistic digressions into works that deal directly with mourning: Henry James’s letter to Grace Norton, or Ulrich Seidl’s beseeching film Jesus, You Know. Receptivity doesn’t preclude ­personality, and as the novel proceeds, the narrator’s desire to “get it right” – to honour suffering with ­the right language, shorn of deception and misrepresentation – becomes the higher goal. Having witnessed, the author must set down a fitting account of that which has been survived.

Whatever Nunez’s intent when writing What Are You Going Through, it’s almost impossible to read it as anything other than a lament for our broken world – climate change sets the book’s terms, and pandemics are mentioned more than once. The case often made for fiction’s relevancy can be a ruse substituting easy timeliness for the more irreducible mysteries of art, but here is something that feels like it convincingly harnesses the speed and topicality of the daily news with something rarer, harder fought. Nunez is too sharp and unsentimental a writer, and too often darkly humorous, to let herself fall into easy platitudes, the much vaunted and often treacly “consolations of art”. Much of the book, for example, undercuts the would-be usefulness that gathers around survivors’ groups. Nunez comforts, yes, but conditionally. The inevitability of death and the likelihood of failure underpin each chastened, moving page.

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

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