December 2023 – January 2024

Arts & Letters

Animal form: Sigrid Nunez

By Briohny Doyle

Sigrid Nunez. Photograph by Marion Ettlinger

The celebrated American author’s latest book, ‘The Vulnerables’, completes a loose trilogy of hybrid autobiographical and fictional novels

Sigrid Nunez is pleased to report that, following a recent donation, a seat at New York City’s Film Forum now has her name on it. “Row 5, seat E,” she says with genuine delight. The independent cinema is her favourite place in the city. “I thought, Here’s something I can do that will make me happy. And it has!”

Nunez – author of nine books, including the recently published The Vulnerables – beams out from my computer screen wearing a sweater the same grey marl as her pixie cut hair. She’s halogen lit, sitting in a nondescript room with a few pieces of generic furniture. I note, with disappointment, that there’s no way this is the tiny West Village apartment in which she imagined a woman reading Rilke to a Great Dane for 2018’s The Friend.

“Oh no. I’m at Yaddo,” she says, referring to the artist’s retreat at Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York, which counts James Baldwin, Samuel R. Delany and Patricia Highsmith among its alumni. She points out the window. “Look, there’s green stuff out there.”

Film Forum matinees notwithstanding, Nunez claims New York City is inessential to her life and work. “I’d be happier somewhere greener. Every now and then someone will refer to a book of mine as a New York novel, but I don’t see it that way. It’s urban, it’s the single life, but New York is just where she happens to be.”

“She”, here, is multivalent. “She” might designate the writer herself as easily as the female narrator who first appeared in the 1995 autobiographical first novel A Feather on the Breath of God, re-emerging more than 20 years later as the shrewd, intimate voice in her three recent novels. “I thought, How interesting, here’s this woman again,” says Nunez.

The Friend (2018), What Are You Going Through (2020) and The Vulnerables (2023) form a loose trilogy in which a woman writer plunges unexpectedly into deep domestic partnership with, in order of publication, a grief stricken Great Dane, a cancer patient planning imminent suicide, and a muttering, marvellous macaw. It’s a conceit Nunez deploys in other novels, too. In 2005’s The Last of Her Kind, one college roommate tells the other that she “asked specifically to be paired with a girl from a world as different as possible from her own”. In 2010’s Salvation City, the orphan of atheists killed in a pandemic seeks shelter in the home of a pastor. And in Sempre Susan, a 2011 memoir of her time with Susan Sontag, a young Nunez cohabits (often reluctantly) with her famous mentor while working as her assistant and dating her son. When I suggest the unconventional domicile might be something of a writerly obsession, Nunez sidesteps.

“I don’t plan it that way,” she says. “Though I suppose it could be because I’m somebody who has never been married and doesn’t have children. I don’t have that nuclear unit. Maybe that’s part of what attracts me to these other kinds of connections. But really, when I sit down to write a story, I don’t have any idea how it will go.”

For Nunez, as for her early teacher Elizabeth Hardwick, and famously, Joan Didion, writing is thinking. The first sentence of What Are You Going Through, “I went to hear a man give a talk”, supplied her with two characters and at least one question – more than enough to base a novel on. In The Friend, Apollo the show-stealing harlequin Great Dane materialised because a widow needed to ask the protagonist for something, and Nunez liked the idea of writing about a dog. (Though she makes clear she’s a cat person who finds the devotion of dogs overwhelming. “Who loves us like dogs do? We don’t even love each other that way.”)

She didn’t plan the trilogy, either. By the time The Friend won the 2018 National Book Award for fiction, Nunez was already writing What Are You Going Through. “If I had been young, or even just younger, this prize would have made such a difference. But here it was, my ninth book.” Still, Nunez sees the upside of late career success, having known writers to be “paralysed” by too many accolades too soon.

In a 2020 Zoom gathering, Romantic Comedy author Curtis Sittenfeld suggested there might be a third book in the series. While the chatty cat in What Are You Going Through had been an unplanned cameo, to complete a trilogy Nunez knew she’d need to pick another animal. She liked parrots. She liked visiting the exotic bird store on Bleeker Street. During the pandemic when it was hard to concentrate, she liked watching bird videos on YouTube.

“Animals having fun can be a poignant spectacle – I suppose partly because it narrows the gap between us and them,” Nunez writes in The Vulnerables. In this novel, the animal is a “feathered charge”, a macaw with clipped wings pacing around its lush, jungle-decorated bedroom in a deserted uptown apartment. Caring for the bird provides a rare opportunity for lockdown-era activity unaccompanied by the question: “Why am I doing this?”

Nunez, like many during the pandemic, cherished a simple answer to this question. “The animal is there, it needs help and I’m doing it,” she says. “Whereas, should I try to read something, watch the news, do some work? What’s the point? Everybody shared that feeling.”

Though this feeling of futility hasn’t retreated, Nunez doesn’t think we can blame Covid anymore. “There’s the climate dread we all have, and war breaking out everywhere. We got through the pandemic. Some people lost their loved ones or their lives, but we did get through it. What we’re not getting through is the politics that are preventing the world from dealing with climate and war. We’re living in an era of rolling crisis.”

In The Vulnerables, Nunez paraphrases Flannery O’Connor: “People without hope don’t write novels. I’m writing a novel. Therefore I must have hope. Does that work?” But she herself doesn’t put much stock in hope. She’s just trying to carry on. “It’s the carrying on that can be called a kind of hope,” she says. “You can’t blame people for being pessimistic. Leonard Woolf was an incredibly pessimistic person. His view of the future could not have been more bleak. But he was also an incredibly hard-working socialist.” (Nunez’s third book, Mitz, details Leonard Woolf’s relationship with his pet marmoset.)

Born in 1951, Sigrid Nunez grew up in “project housing” in Fort Greene and Staten Island, and developed a reputation as “the animal girl” due to her tendency to take in injured wildlife. The daughter of a Chinese-Panamanian father and a German mother, hers was a childhood disconnected from any coherent diasporic identity. Nunez describes this experience in Feather on the Breath of God, the novel she “had to write before anything else”, though it resulted in an acrimonious relationship with her mother lasting until her death. The novel starts in autobiography, with Nunez’s memory of hearing her father speak Chinese for the first time on Coney Island: “So it was true, then. He really was Chinese. Up until that day I had not quite believed it.” Later, the same father is described as “a character in a story also in the sense that he needed to be invented”.

In high school, Nunez became obsessed with ballet. “Work as hard as you can. Make it Beautiful. How can you argue with rules as pure and as simple as that?” she writes in A Feather on the Breath of God. She was too late to dance to pursue a life on the stage (“Ballerina: beautiful, passive, mute. Doomed.”) and, at Barnard College, Nunez switched to writing. Later, as a creative writing teacher, she’ll admit irritation at graduate students less serious about writing than 12-year-old girls are about dance. (I wonder what adult takes the future as seriously as certain kinds of 12-year-olds?)

Nunez met Susan Sontag while working at The New York Review of Books, an encounter she credits as “everything”. Sontag, for her part, assumed that degrees from Barnard and Columbia University meant “you hadn’t learnt a goddamn thing” and set about delivering another education, central to which was express permission “to be very serious”.

“It wasn’t that I was writing anything she was interested in or even thought was any good. In fact, I was hardly writing at all,” Nunez says. Nevertheless it was Sontag who encouraged her to see writing as a vocation. “She thought a writer was the best thing a person could be.”

Nunez’s own writing is digressive, capricious, at times aphoristic, and often heartbreaking in its explorations of grief and letting go. “Something is missing. Something has been lost. I believe this is at the heart of why I write,” she writes in The Vulnerables, as well as “elegy plus comedy … is the only way to express how we live now”. While she uses the phrase “the writer’s life” without a hint of squeamishness, that many of her protagonists share this vocation is also unintentional.

“Most writers, for good reason, are allergic to writing about writers and the writer’s life. But if I’d made my narrator a doctor I would have had to give her a hospital and patients and all these things.”

Instead, the narrator of her trilogy “has a lot in common with me and is talking about her life”, which, like Nunez’s own, involves writing, teaching, encounters with humans and animals, love affairs that do not culminate in marriage or children, and above all, time to reflect. Similarities between author and narrator have led critics to describe the novels as autofiction, a term Francophone literary scholars have been redefining since the 1970s in reference to texts including the autobiographies of layfolk, hybrid forms of memoir, and works of first-person fiction wherein writer and author share a name. So, what are we combing fiction for when we apply the auto- prefix? Are our inner lives fictive and the verifiable events of life autobiographical? In English, we’ve entered this debate relatively recently, with the impression that, whatever balance of truth and imagination autofiction might contain, the term is having a moment.

In The Vulnerables, Nunez writes that “these days, the writer strikes me as someone who is becoming less like a creative artist and more like a politician: ever evasive, fixated on construal”. Against generic prescriptions, she tells me her later novels are “hybrids, part fiction, part essay, part autobiography, part cultural analysis”.

In Sempre Susan, she recalls Sontag’s insistence that “ ‘the question you have to ask yourself is whether what you’re writing is necessary.’ I didn’t know about this. Necessary? That way, I thought, lies writer’s block.” Despite this youthful resistance, Nunez’s trilogy considers what a necessary literature for our time might look like. In The Friend, a digression considers the urgency of what Svetlana Alexievich called “documentary fiction, stories cut from ordinary, individual life. No invention. No authorial point of view.” In What Are You Going Through, the narrator decides that writing about her friend’s suicide “would falsify everything” creating an “inauthentic document, to be taken mistaken by anyone who later read it – including even myself – for the truth”. She also laments the way “the most powerful experiences so often end up resembling dreams”. At the conclusion of The Vulnerables, she articulates a question she claims plagues many writers – “why are we making things up?” – positing that what is wanted in our own “dark, anti-truth times … is a literature of personal history and reflection: direct, authentic, scrupulous about fact”.

Nunez herself has no such scruples. “I’ve always seen myself as a writer who loves to make things up.” For her, writing has supplied a “reason to go on, decade after decade, and made it possible, as I like to say, to be apart from the world and a part of the world at the same time”.

Her narrator goes on, too, from novel to novel, mourning, yearning, delivering pithy one-liners about life and death. She considers the shape of tragedy in relation to that of her life. In What Are You Going Through she attributes to Lacan the idea that only women’s lives can be tragic; about men there is always something comic. Does Nunez believe this, I wonder? Through the various disappointments and disintegrations of life, did she ever?

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s just part of the culture. It’s so binary, though. Men are this, women are that. I write something like that and I think, Is that true? And then I think, Well, it doesn’t have to be, it sounds good. And it’s not me saying that, it’s my narrator. It’s for the reader to say, ‘That’s bullshit!’”

In A Feather on the Breath of God, the narrator, still young, having recently given up on ballet and ended a doomed romance in which she was “ravished”, grapples with the composition (gendered and otherwise) of tragedy. She allows herself to imagine a quiet life of entanglements, solitude and devotion to art. “Are there really women like this or only women who write stories about women like this?” she wonders.

Nunez, I’ve learnt, does not like to deliver verdicts, so I don’t ask for one. Besides, the answer is implicit: Her name is on a seat in her favourite cinema. She is late for dinner at Yaddo. She is both.


Briohny Doyle

Briohny Doyle is the author of Why We Are Here, Echolalia, Adult Fantasy and The Island Will Sink. She is a lecturer at the University of Sydney.

Black and white close-up photo of Sigrid Nunez

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