By Sigrid Nunez
Riverhead Books, 2018
Let me start this review on a completely random note: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about lament. Lament is such a brilliant expression for the times we live in. It beats giving up. Yet there are so many who have done just that—giving up. Giving up also takes many different forms. Such as turning off your Smartphone and living in a cabin off the grid. I know people who are doing just that: isolating. I can no longer reach them and when I do they do not want to engage.
It feels like a death.
Then there are those who have chosen death. Every day we hear of someone who has taken their life. News media tells us it is an epidemic.
A current of hopelessness permeates the air, to the point that sometimes I have to escape. Disengage. What a vicious cycle.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. One way I choose to escape is through long-distance cycling trips. In fact, I’m planning one right now. Even just the planning inspires me to keep going.
So on that melancholy note I launch into a review of a book that starts with a suicide. The unnamed narrator is grieving the loss of a colleague, friend, lover. And, as we learn, a pet owner.
She is left with her sorrow and by happenstance his Great Dane.
The narrator is herself a writer, thus she explores the territory of vocation, almost a higher calling, and the reality of what it takes to be a writer today. Nunez through prose examines the pitfalls many writers of her age encounter when faced with sensitivity readers, critiques of word choice that in light of political correctness fall into a red zone. Student/teacher conduct comes into focus, as well as the fact that she slept with her professor, her late friend. There is a quip at his memorial service: that he is now a dead white male.
The narrator has nowhere to turn for solace—except the hulking, slobbery 100-pound dog left to her. She lives in a 500 square-foot New York City apartment where dogs are not allowed. She is in danger of becoming homeless, losing her mind to grief, and on top of all this there’s writer block.
Her heart is so raw. All around her are questions. Event he answers are subjective, depending on where you stand in a situation. She cries, walks her dog, teaches creative writing at the university, comes home to walk the dog. Along the way she discovers that reading aloud Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, soothes both her and her new friend. The title of the book, The Friend, refers to both the friend she lost and the one she gained through adoption. She bounces back and forth between addressing her dead former mentor and Apollo, the Great Dane.
I got a chance to meet Sigrid Nunez when I was on waitstaff at Breadloaf a million years ago and since then have read a few of her novels/memoirs/whatever you want to call it. You see, that the beauty of her work, is that it is not easily classified. She borrows from the world around her, other people’s lives, material from her past and melds them together into a hybrid novel that feels real—like looking out a window where you can’t tell if there is glass. I love this kind of work. Lily Tuck did the same thing with The Double Life of Liliane.
In a hybrid there are liberal doses of the “real” and invented parts. Poetic license. Where we as readers assume she is writing about herself, while she is aware of constructing a story that makes sense, which means playing with the facts. Often “real life” is too strange and convoluted to appear real. Subtext gives it a little more credibility.
If you enjoy feeling off-balance, reading memoirs, love dog stories, or want to read about the writer’s journey: read The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.