Sigrid Nunez is usually a writer I enjoy and respect, but in her attempt to address friendship, illness and death in her latest book I feel she never goes beyond the superficial.On the second last page of the book she tells us her title, What are you Going Through, taken from a quote by the French philosopher Simone Weil, means in French quel est ton tourment? ‘Tourment’ can be translated as, torment, pain, or suffering, more extreme one would have thought than the bland English words of her title. And, sadly, I felt there was something bland and random about this book. The characters don’t come alive. Is the fault in the writing, or is it that affluent white American society can be like this; a sterile life of focusing on appearances, a fetishisation of sex, a lack of closeness ?
Her story opens with the words, ‘I went to hear a man give a talk’ and we hear a great deal about this talk. Almost nine pages are given to it, with just a mention of her friend with a terminal illness, but also with descriptions of her Air Bnb lodgings. The man proves to be her ex-husband, a journalist, who sees a coming catastrophe caused by climate change. Perhaps she is looking at end times for the world as well as end times for her friend, but the talk is long and rather dull.
By the time she leaves this place she has agreed to accompany her friend on a last holiday while the friend takes medication to end her life.
Somehow this book never engages the reader. Pages are given, in the same way they are given to the ex-husbands talk, to describing a novel about a serial killer. We have an account of her employment by a well-known writer in her student years, she describes her friend with cancer as, ‘probably the best read person I know’. The friend talks a great deal, expresses opinions, never really comes to life. There is some discussion of the lack of debate about euthanasia in America, but not much. I don’t think the subject is really engaged with at all.
This book has had some praise, but I found it a great disappointment. In the epigraph to Part Three it is almost as if Sigrid Nunez is pre-empting criticism of the inconsequential nature of her book
Everything that a writer writes could just as easily have been different- but not until it’s been written. As a life could have been different, but not until it’s been lived. (Inger Christensen)
Here are a few passages from her first book, A Feather on the Breath of God, describing a Russian man with whom she had a passionate relationship
Taller than everyone else in class by a least a head. Sharp cheekbones, slanted blue eyes, full lips large teeth, and a way of smiling that makes you understand why we say to flash a smile, because that is just what he does. I think it is the smile that makes me think of a gypsy.
The first time I see him without his shirt I see the scars. On the insides of his arms, on his midriff; one curving like an eyebrow above the nipple eye of his left breast.
Midnight, and we are parked in his cab in front of my apartment building. Vadim is drinking a Coke. When the Coke is all gone, he tosses the can out of the window. It bounces three times, the rolls clatteringly, the noise resounding in the empty street. A few of my neighbours out with their dogs, turn and frown. Vadim is unaware, I sink low in my seat.
Immigrant Love, the section in A Feather on the Breath of God devoted to a relationship with a Russian immigrant who is learning English is only fifty-nine pages long but written with skill and passion. This man, drug addict, ex-thug, unfaithful husband, tender lover, is alive in all his complexity.
I know Sigrid Nunez teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Boston University, but in her latest book, she seems to have forgotten the old maxim, ‘description and detail are the life blood of writing.’