What Are You Going Through: A novel
by Sigrid Nunez
Virago, $29.99 pb, 210 pp
In 1976, Sigrid Nunez moved into an apartment on Riverside Drive in New York with her then boyfriend, David Reiff, and his mother, Susan Sontag. Nunez is a person who cherishes solitude. In Sempre Susan, her tribute to Sontag, she describes the strain of living with extroverts when her dream, from her teenage years, had been: ‘A single room. A chair, a table, a bed. Windows on a garden. Music. Books. A cat to teach me how to be alone with dignity.’ Sontag never wanted to be alone. Nunez was drawn into constant dinners, movies, and mountainous correspondence interrupted by telephone calls and visits, often from Joseph Brodsky, the Russian poet, who sometimes meowed like a cat instead of saying hello. (Although Nunez liked him, Brodsky was clearly not the cat of her dreams.) Sontag, objecting to a routine interview, grumbled that ‘Beckett wouldn’t do it’, which became a private refrain for Nunez, oppressed by the relentless activity of the household and the pressure for her to join in.
What Are You Going Through, Nunez’s most recent novel, follows The Friend, which won the National Book Award in 2018. It resembles The Friend more closely than any of her previous books: in each novel a solitary intellectual woman is put in a difficult position by the request of a friend. In The Friend, an immense dog is given into her care. In What Are You Going Through, a dying woman asks for assistance. The narrator thinks intensively about her circumstances, using an armory of reading and personal experience.