Love and loss in Sigrid Nunez’s 'The Friend'

Monday, February 19, 2018 - 2:28pm

Sigrid Nunez’s new novel “The Friend” is a heart-wrenching yet bleakly funny rumination on friendship, love and grief. The plot is simple: A writer’s old friend, mentor and sometimes lover commits suicide, and she is compelled to adopt his huge, silent, slobbering Great Dane named Apollo. Nunez deftly weaves together two tropes — the human-animal relationship saga (who rescues who?) and the grief story — and somehow makes them both fresh again.

The joys of this novel lie in Nunez’s striking capacity to describe the world and its inhabitants, both human and animal. Nunez is a keen observer of behavior, and throughout the text she plants wonderful nuggets that immediately ring true yet still manage to be surprising. “But from the time I started studying Buddhism I found it at odds with wanting to be a writer,” the narrator says. Or: “It's not uncommon to wish to have known what a person you’ve come to love was like before you met them. It hurts, almost, not to have known what a beloved was like as a child.” On last words: “So this is how the story ends, my friend in the AIDS hospice said. Eyes wide with wonder, like a child’s.”

The relationship between the narrator and her deceased friend that provides the narrative skeleton for the novel is familiar yet also unique. The narrator’s friend, a writer and reluctant college professor, is brought into focus solely by the narrator’s memories of him. These recollections are generally negative and paint a picture of a womanizing, arrogant man: “By now it has become a pattern: young women who are willing to fuck you but share none of the desire that drives you to them … Nineteen-and-a-half has your heart on a string. Tug, tug, this way — no that way, professor.”

One feels pity and second-hand embarrassment from these stories, and it’s the narrator’s abiding love for this man that is compelling, not the man himself. Any positive aspects of his personality remain mostly obscured, but the point of this novel isn’t to describe him comprehensively; rather, it is to track the fallout of his suicide on the protagonist. Their relationship was one of mutual love, the kind that defies easy categorization. They were friends, occasional romantic and sexual partners and writers bound by a deep mistrust of their art and the process through which it flourished and failed. Such a complex give-and-take has a lasting emotional impact even (or especially) when one friend is no longer alive, and Nunez is eager to catalog the ways in which being left with the remains of a years-long relationship produce unexpected interpersonal turmoil.

“The Friend” interacts with other texts overtly and subtly, both to great effect. The repetitive literary allusions could feel showoff-y or forced, but here it makes sense: The narrator is entrenched in the world of writing and publishing, as was her friend. It's fitting that the narrator practically thinks in poetry (in a tribute to Mary Oliver: “And could I justify doing something with my life, my wild and precious life, that I knew, undone, would not be missed?”). There are also direct references to Joan Didion, Henry de Montherlant, Rebecca West, W.G. Sebald, John Updike, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut and many, many others. This doesn’t come off as pretentious; the book is as much about the pursuit of writing itself as it is about anything else and so it’s fitting to hear what other well-regarded authors have to say. It feels, at times, like a roundtable discussion with writers popping in to offer their opinions on Nunez’s questions: What does it mean to be a writer? What does it mean to love, to live, to lose? What does it mean to write about these things?

While generally Nunez’s language is jaw-droppingly beautiful, her affinity for sparse prose sometimes comes across as too direct and even cliché: “I had forgotten how painful it is to remember, writes one of my students. And she is only eighteen years old.”  These moments are rare, though, and overall Nunez’s distinctively blunt style serves to strengthen the emotional impact of her content. Apollo’s dignified final days are described in a way that is somehow both breathtaking and heartbreaking: “You know nothing of envy. No yearnings, or nostalgia. No regrets. You really are a different species.” The narrator’s grief for Apollo and for her deceased friend becomes inextricable: “Nothing has changed. It’s still very simple. I miss him.” Nunez, like others who have attempted to quantify the unquantifiable and describe the indescribable, knows that writing about grief is often most powerful when it is done with restraint. “I miss him,” she says. “I miss him every day.”