From the National Book Award-winning author of The Friend comes a story about the value of companionship. A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life: an ex she runs into by chance at a public forum, an Airbnb owner unsure how to interact with her guests, a stranger who seeks help comforting his elderly mother, a friend of her youth now hospitalized with terminal cancer.
It takes something more than intelligence to be able to write intelligently ... Whatever it is, Sigrid Nunez has it. When I open one of her novels, I almost always know immediately: This is where I want to be ... It’s as good as The Friend, if not better ... This novel has sorrow in it. It’s also quite funny. We bumble our way toward death as we bumble toward everything ... [a] wise novel.
Reading Sigrid Nunez’s absorbing new novel is somewhat akin to having a long conversation with someone who is telling you something very important, but is telling it in a very quiet voice. You have to really pay attention. Be assured, however, that the experience will be worth it. You will emerge calmer, meditative, more thoughtful, as if you have benefited from an excellent literary massage of sorts ... Nunez tells the simplest of stories — about a woman accompanying a terminally ill friend through her last months — and expands it into an exploration of the largest of themes: nothing less than the realities of living and dying in this world and how we feel about both ... Like the best of our writers, Nunez is a bit of a seer and a prophet, and so it is discomfiting to imagine that what she presents here as the state of the world could be true ... Nunez’s unerring and quietly observant eye burrows further and further into these experiences as if they will unearth an answer of sorts ... Beauty, friendship, nature, art: These are the salves to loneliness and despair, and Nunez offers them all in this searching look into life and death.
What Are You Going Through gets at its central action—itself deferred—slowly, circling it by way of these other encounters. One might want to compare the book’s conversation-heavy structure to Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. But the Outline books are cold and austere, organized around a reticent observer whose judgments are nonetheless palpable. Love doesn’t come into them. Nunez’s narrator is more present—we sometimes get her own memories spliced in with someone else’s account—and conflicted, at times anguished ... Where suicide usually divides a person from others, in What Are You Going Through it brings the friend and narrator together, allowing them to repair and deepen their relationship ... Nunez’s...style, which has always been unflashy and matter of fact...has become even more compressed, with more of the architecture of plot and character stripped away. There is something ghostly and a little disembodied in the scene-setting and character description; what the reader remembers is what people say and think—their ideas—rather than how they move or what they look like ... It feels aged—wise, even, like her narrators have acquired knowledge at some personal cost. Nunez uses quotation to illuminate situation, and her choices can be devastating.