Annie Walton Doyle

Musings in lockdown: The Vulnerables, by Sigrid Nunez, reviewed

Marooned in Manhattan with a stoned student and precocious parrot for company, our elderly narrator despairs of the novel’s future when life is so much stranger than fiction

Sigrid Nunez in New York in 2018. [Getty Images]

The Vulnerables represents Sigrid Nunez’s foray into pandemic literature, a genre we can only expect to see grow in the coming years. The topic is handled with a level of absurdity, making elements of the story eerily (and sometimes traumatically) recognisable. Nunez’s musings on how writing can represent the strangeness of life are never more poignant than when she reflects on the ‘uncertain spring’ of 2020. You’d think she was inventing it if you hadn’t been there yourself.

The question of how to write when life is stranger than fiction is at the centre of the book. ‘More and more, fictional story-telling is coming across as beside the point,’ she declares. ‘More and more writers are having difficulty quieting a voice that says, Why are you making things up?’

These ruminations on how to write the unthinkable are often profound:

The traditional novel has lost its place as the major genre of our time. It may not be dead yet, but it will not long abide. No matter how well done, it seems to lack urgency. No matter how imaginative, it seems to lack originality.

They can also be wryly self-aware:

Whenever I write something about writing or being a writer, I am annoying the hell out of some people.

By questioning the ‘plot’ of life during those ‘unprecedented times’, Nunez draws attention to the inevitably false constructions of any writing on the subject. Can there be a satisfactory conclusion to the pandemic? (Spoiler: no.)

The reading experience genuinely feels like being in lockdown – although one can be left questioning whether that’s really a good thing – with the experience of ‘pandemic brain’ reflected remarkably. The vignettes of memories read like sporadic and unfocused thought, reminiscent of a waning collective attention span in a vastly contracted inner world.

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