What Are You Going Through is both brilliant and mercifully brief. Weighing in at 200-odd pages, it can be read in five hours flat and will leave you staring into endless night. ‘Make the audience suffer as much as possible,’ advised Alfred Hitchcock, and Sigrid Nunez, whose subject is emotional extremity, follows suit.
The suffering begins at the start when the narrator, a woman of a certain age whose name we never learn, goes to a talk by a writer, whose name we also never learn. His lecture, given in a polished, emotionless voice, is about the death of the planet:
“It was over, he said. It was too late, we had dithered too long. Our society had become too fragmented and dysfunctional for us to fix, in time, the calamitous mistakes we had made.
The writer — who turns out to be the narrator’s ex — offers no way out of this apocalyptic scenario: we are on the Titanic and ‘should be utterly consumed with dread’; our children and grandchildren will suffer so much that ‘the living will envy the dead’. Members of the audience wonder if he might have been sulking because the hall was only half full.
The narrator, who is visiting a friend with terminal cancer, is staying in an Airbnb. The accommodation was meant to include a cat, which had died since she made the booking. The dying friend, meanwhile, asks if the narrator will help her, when the time comes, to terminate her life. ‘I promise,’ the friend says, ‘to make it as much fun as possible.’ The book’s message is clear: the end of the world might be out of our control, but the end of our lives is not. ‘The love of our neighbours’, says Simone Weil in the book’s epigraph, ‘simply means being able to say, “What are you going through?”’ Nunez repeatedly asks the question, and listens attentively to the answers.
And the two women do have fun. They rent an Airbnb (there is a great deal in this book about Airbnbs) where the narrator reads aloud fairy tales and eats for them both; they laugh and cry like they have never laughed and cried before and enjoy an unexpected intimacy. When the narrator confides in her ex (who her friend thinks is a jerk) about their strange minibreak, he says that it sounds ‘a little like a sitcom. Lucy and Ethel do Euthanasia.’ This, in so far as the novel has one, is the plot, and it comes with a good twist at the end.
The euthanasia sitcom, however, serves as a frame for the many other stories that the narrator shares with us. Quoting the opening line of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier — ‘This is the saddest story I’ve ever heard’ — every story she tells is sadder than the last. Holding us with her skinny hand, she returns to the saddest film she has ever seen (Tokyo Story) and the saddest musical (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg); she tells us the plot of the thriller she is currently reading (‘I suppose there is some kind of twist ahead, but I am not so fond of twists in mystery novels’); she thinks about Dora Carrington, who shot herself after Lytton Strachey died of cancer; about a woman at the gym who is no longer beautiful; and about a couple who have a fight in the park. Even the new cat in the Airbnb (who has replaced the dead one) has a heartbreaking tale to tell about being found half-dead in a dustbin:
“I had a decent home, the cat said, his words muffled by the purr but still clear... He told many other stories that night — he was a real Scheherazade, that cat.
For admirers of Nunez’s previous novel, The Friend — about a dog she inherited from a former lover after he committed suicide — the cat episode doesn’t seem so surreal.
The reference to Scheherazade, the narrator of One Thousand and One Nights is, like every reference in these pages, loaded with significance: Scheherazade seduced the king with stories in order to stop him from killing her. But none of the stories in What Are You Going Through are as compelling as the suave and sinuous way in which they are told. The narrative control of this novel simply dazzles. Nunez moves into and out of first and third person, past and present tense and direct and indirect speech as though she were shifting the gears of