Fiction – paperback; Virago; 210 pages; 2020.
Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel What Are You Going Through is a beguiling story that doesn’t really fit into a box. The blurb writers have tried to paint it as a tale about two friends, one of whom asks the other to be there when she chooses to die euthanasia style, but it is so much more complex and convoluted than that.
This is a story about stories — the stories we hear, the stories we write, the stories we tell ourselves. (“This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” the opening line from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, is a constant refrain.)
It’s about truth and fiction, confronting our fears, searching for hope to sustain us and caring for others. Most importantly, it’s about life and death, and asks pertinent questions about what makes a good life — and what makes a good death.
Helping a friend out
What Are You Going Through is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, a middle-aged writer who has never been married or had children. She has an ex-partner who is a professor and well-known author, and when the book opens she (secretly) attends a talk he is delivering “based on a long article he had written for a magazine” about humankind’s death wish.
It was all over, he said again. No more the faith and consolation that had sustained generations and generations, the knowledge that, though our own individual time on earth must end, what we loved and what had meaning for us would go on, the world of which we had been a part would endure — that time had ended, he said. Our world and our civilization would not endure, he said. We must live and die in this new knowledge.
This, essentially, is a foreshadowing of a predicament the narrator finds herself in when she agrees to be with her terminally ill friend at the end of her life. The end, however, won’t be from natural causes. Her friend has decided that she will take a lethal tablet at a time of her choosing because she’s seeking peace, not the pain and agony of a death from cancer.
The narrator agrees to help because “I knew that, in her place, I would have hoped to be able to do exactly what she now wanted to do. And I would have needed someone to help me.”
A book of two halves
What Are You Going Through is a book of two halves. In the first, Nunez takes her time to build up the idea that all people really want out of life is to be noticed, to be seen, for others to understand what they are going through. And in the second, she recounts what happens when the narrator and her friend rent an Airbnb for a short holiday in which they will go exploring, eat out and generally relax before one of them will take a lethal drug to end it all.
There’s a lot to like about this book: the finger-on-the-pulse commentary about modern living and the craziness of our lives in general, the easy-going narrative style, the humour and the cool, calm intelligent voice of the narrator.
The meandering anecdotal style threw me at first, but once I warmed to it I loved not knowing what to expect next. That’s because much of what the narrator tells us is observational, a bit like a personal diary in which she recalls scenes she’s glimpsed, people she’s met and conversations she’s overheard.
On more than one occasion I was reminded of Helen Garner’s wonderful Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978-1987. (As an aside, Nunez and Garner seem to have similar writing styles and observational skills, the ability to create a whole scene or feeling from the briefest of detail. And it hasn’t escaped my attention that Garner’s novel The Spare Room is also about a friend dying from cancer.)
Despite the heavy subject matter, I rather enjoyed What Are You Going Through. Having read Nunez’s brilliant 2006 novel The Last of Her Kind earlier this year, I had high expectations. I wasn’t disappointed.
I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.