What Are You Going Through
(Riverhead Books, 2020)
In What Are You Going Through, Sigrid Nunez shares the heartbreaking faults of human communication. She demonstrates language’s shortcomings and the way it allows us to share experiences yet fails to connect us deeply enough to understand another living thing completely. At the same time, she illustrates the beautiful ways that we make do, and spend lifetimes in bittersweet pursuits of personal connections that might heal our emotional and existential wounds.
Nunez deals with common human experiences such as death, illness, friendship, family, and one’s relationship to the world. She often references and quotes other authors and thinkers. But despite the novel’s universality and intertextuality, it is something completely new and even daring. It is a probe into the heart of human empathy and individuality. Nunez subverts structural traditions and novel conventions in service of a work that provides a fresh portrait of human relationships. She offers a rare innovation on realism, and in turn, a reading experience that is at once engaging, thought-provoking, and emotionally rich.
The novel’s premise is stated at the opening and then immediately moved into the background. The narrator has taken up temporary lodgings at an Airbnb in order to visit her friend who is struggling with terminal cancer. We enter this story in medias res, with the narrator attending a talk on climate change before moving through a cast of passing characters, in order to focus on a multitude of peripheral observations and thoughtful digressions. As the narrator listens to Earth’s hopeless prognosis, she details her arrival at the Airbnb, the broken promise of a cat in residence, and the quirks of her host. She stops for a drink on the way back to her room and eavesdrops on a woman talking with her father about the pain of losing her mother. The young woman is trying futilely to have her pain heard and validated. Not long after, the narrator presents a woman at her gym struggling with her aging beauty. We meet another woman who ends up being physically accosted by an old man while out for a run. Some space is allotted to a scene where her Airbnb host finally gets a cat. The narrator digresses into the feline’s imagined backstory, achieving a brief but heartbreaking story arc.
The narrative’s attention initially belongs to the ancillary characters and is presented with the narrator’s acute attention to details, internalizing her surroundings and presenting them with her philosophical disposition. We then move into a specific area of her ailing friend’s backstory: her strained relationship with her daughter. Even this section feels as though it belongs more to her friend’s daughter than it does to her friend. Her daughter is difficult and resentful, a portrayal tempered by the revelation that while growing up, she’d been writing letters to her absent, and now deceased, father. In between the stories of these characters, the narrator discusses everything from sad stories to pulpy mystery novels, George Balanchine to a documentary film on prayer. Nunez provides an almost stream-of-consciousness style, if not for the fact that it is refined and that there is a thematic unification of these elements.
Where variety often risks feeling unfocused, this first section uses changing topics and a rotating cast to explore certain aspects of the human condition on a deep level. The narrator establishes her philosophy of, and affinity for, empathy. And through each moment on the page, she is inviting the reader to experiment with her values in order to actualize the full potential of the existential exploration that follows with the rest of the novel.
The main plotline is then introduced. The narrator agrees to accompany her friend to another Airbnb, this time a large colonial-style house in New England that reminds her friend of her childhood home. Her friend’s condition is fatal, and she has elected to end her life on her own terms with the use of euthanasia pills at this house. At this point, we’ve been eased into the world of this novel, and we share the narrator’s almost paradoxical perspective of both being resigned to the inevitability of mortality while being sensitive to each instance of the same’s injustice. Nunez has reframed both the horror of addressing one’s own mortality and the process of despairing the loss of a loved one.
There are two achievements that have allowed Nunez to accomplish this feat. One is by establishing a narrator superbly unique and round. The narrator’s observations, tangents, and her highly associative memory that leads to poetic distractions, create a high-water mark of realism. She begins thinking about the song “My Favorite Things,” and song lyrics interspersed into the action. A connection between Flaubert, Aristotle, Hitchcock, and Sylvester the Cat is seamlessly made within the topic of suffering. These small choices, which often occupy such little space on the page, have grand effects. The connection between the reader and the narrator is intimate, and by proxy, so is the connection to her dying friend. We know them in a way that almost transcends language and enters an arena of sublingual characterization. Nunez achieves all of this without even telling us their names.
The other aspect of the book that provides the foundation for the reader’s immersion is Nunez’s language. The novel is full of stunning prose. It juxtaposes the narrator’s internal experience with nuanced depictions of the activity in her external world. The discourse between the two generates tension throughout the book, increasing right up until the end, with the effects remaining with the reader after the book is finished. On the sentence level, Nunez dazzles us with lines that make us laugh and which break our hearts at once. Her style is economical, and it reads effortlessly, as though we are hearing and the cadence of the narrator’s voice speaking to us. But there is an ever-present sense of gravitas in each line, building to moments when Nunez punctuates with profundity. Nunez writes: “But it was not his fault that our language has been hallowed out, coarsened, and bled dry, leaving us always stupid and tongue-tied before emotion.”
The sentiment that language fails us, or even further serves to disconnect us, is discussed directly and with metaphor, highlighting the narrator’s desire to achieve a perfected sense of empathy. The narrator thinks about the story of the Tower of Babel, and how God divides people by establishing distinct languages for each tribe. “But what if God had in fact gone even further. What if it was not just to different tribes but to each individual human being that a separate language was given, unique as fingerprints.” This is the essence of the story in a way, the fact that the tools we have to communicate are learned apparatuses, and while their imperfections assure our enduring loneliness, they also define our individuality. The book seems to state that how we suffer, how we cope with despair and mortality, is how we communicate who we are in essence. The narrator notes, “You are never your true self except when you’re alone—but who wants to be alone, dying?” The narrator possesses a tragic reconciliation between existentialism and identity.
As the health of the narrator’s friend fails, her character is illuminated incrementally. We learn how far the narrator is willing to go in order to honor her friend’s desire to author her own death, and the suspense built around whether or not the narrator’s friend will choose to end her own life provides an arena for the narrator to subvert the boundaries of ethical conventions. During their time in the house, the pair becomes more candid with each other, sharing moments of tenderness that seem impossible in the book’s first section. Ultimately, the narrator anticipates her friend’s needs and moods. She notes that they communicate more in silence than in words, perhaps offering a tragic, yet beautiful cadential space where one may come as close as possible to knowing another person in the moments before they lose them.