What Are You Going Through
by Sigrid Nunez
reviewed by Jessica Vestuto
Trying to describe a death while it’s happening is like trying to make a bed while lying in it. It’s an awkward and often doomed endeavor without clean lines—that is, unless you are Sigrid Nunez. Her 2018 National Book Award-winning novel, The Friend, was about the aftermath of a death; her highly anticipated follow-up novel, What Are You Going Through, masterfully depicts a death as it is happening. The book is a transitive space, a verb between two nouns, a going through.
What is the narrator going through? For most of the novel, in typical Nunez fashion, she seems less an actual person than a sounding board for other people’s sad stories. A neighbor describes his elderly mother’s dwindling sanity. A jaded ectomorph at the gym laments the inevitability of aging. A shelter cat, in one Kafkaesque scene, shares his sad plight. Each story centers on loss, and through Nunez’s spare prose, each story feels overheard and fleeting, as though the narrator is listening to an intimate conversation through thin walls. Reading these stories, you slip into a state of reverence without realizing it; you find yourself breathing more quietly, partly out of respect, partly out of fear you might scare them away.
Slowly the narrator’s own sad story is revealed: a close friend is dying of cancer. The novel follows the conversation between the friends as the dying woman considers both how her life has been and how it will end. “Dying is a role we play like any other role in life,” the narrator says, and at first the friend plays the role admirably, analyzing the painful and awkward process of dying thoughtfully and even humorously. The narrator is the ideal audience for the performance: she doesn’t pity her friend, nor does she ignore the diagnosis. Instead, she listens devotedly to her friend’s thoughts on death and occasionally offers her own. The pair complement each other well—the friend exceedingly blunt, the narrator exceedingly passive—and their conversations evolve into a comfortable and familiar rhythm. They’re the kind of friends, should one of them set a small fire in her life, to look for patterns in the flames together and cackle.
Midway through the novel, that rhythm is disturbed: the friend asks the narrator for a life-changing favor, and the narrative shifts abruptly. The friend becomes suddenly vulnerable, and the narrator’s passivity suddenly dissipates as the magnitude of the request forces her to take action. She must decide what role she will play in the friend’s death, a decision she finds more tormenting than the death itself. This is Nunez’s primary concern in What Are You Going Through: not how a person faces her own death, but how she faces another’s. Yes, dying is a role we will all play eventually, but being near someone who’s dying, experiencing other people’s suffering, is a role we play as well.
Nunez’s title is drawn from Simone Weil: “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him, ‘What are you going through?’” Out of context, this question seems an easy one, but Nunez’s novel imbues the query with remarkable weight and urgency. For Nunez, it’s not the question itself, or whatever answer might follow it, but rather the act of asking the question that matters. The series of sad stories, of “going-throughs” heard by the narrator, reveal the power in turning one’s attention to someone else’s sorrow, inquiring into what someone is going through, and listening to the answer. In the end, the narrator’s choice to move as close as possible to experiencing what her friend is going through, to be there for her in an inordinately intense and difficult situation, is what defines her.
During a rare public outburst, the narrator breaks down in front of a stranger who tries and fails to comfort her by expressing gratuitous pity, making her promise not to forget about “self-care.” Later, she remarks on the experience: “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who upon seeing someone else suffering think, That could happen to me, and those who think, That will never happen to me. The first kind of people help us to endure, the second kind make life hell.” There’s no question—the sad stories in What Are You Going Through could happen to anyone. The book poignantly reveals a sorrow that belongs to everyone, and in this, offers a lasting comfort.
Published on February 16, 2021