This is a profoundly personal book: not in a confessional, nor even a confiding way, much less the gut-spilling vein that screams for attention in this ever more distracted world. Sigrid Nunez’ The Friend is a calm, though unflinching, exploration of grief in the wake of a close friend’s suicide.
As survivor’s tale, it joins two other treasures of recent vintage, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story. Where it departs from their course is in its billing not as memoir but as fiction, in which category it has found its way onto this year’s short list for the National Book Award, the winner to be announced November 14.
This classification might lead one to write off the book as a work of imagination with little relationship to real life. But a close reading leads to the opposite conclusion: The detachment afforded the author by presenting her narrative as fiction only serves Nunez’ purpose all the better of delving into her personal experience. I, of course, have no idea how much of the book “really” happened but am convinced that in Nunez’ universe, the question is beside the point.
So what’s the book about? Although the lion’s share of Amazon reviewers express unqualified praise, one complained that despite the picture of the distinguished-looking Great Dane sitting with regal posture on the cover, it’s not really about a dog. The picture, according to this disgruntled reader, is a “marketing ploy” to… what? Lure that huge chunk of the reading public that devours books with canine protagonists? But it is true that the friend of the title is not primarily the mythic creature who first appears on page 25; it is the unnamed long time confidant, like Nunez herself, a writer and writing teacher, who. to the shock and bewilderment of close associates and three ex-wives, kills himself. And to the surprise of Nunez in particular, designates her to inherit his unlikely “rescue” dog, Apollo.
Nunez’ grief in the aftermath of her former mentor’s loss occasions this prolonged study of suicide, among other subjects, for Nunez, in her understated way, is a formidable scholar of a wide array of topics. Thus do we learn that [w]riting in the first person is a known sign of suicide risk.” Other topics explored are animals and what they may be thinking: (“[T]he last thing you want,” a vet advises her, “is for [Apollo] to start thinking you’re his bitch;”) and writing students who seem to have no idea of what their chosen field is, (“[c]olor of eyes, color of hair – the usual student way of describing a character, as if a story is a piece of ID like a driver’s license;”) much less of what it requires. (“I delete without answering the questionnaire from someone who is considering taking my class. [Number one: Are you over-concerned with things like punctuation and grammar?”])
It is Nunez’ vignettes from these worlds, her quotes, which are so off-the-wall as to have to be real, that offer the novel’s greatest rewards.
Not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness, Simenon said writing was. Georges Simenon, who wrote hundreds of novels under his own name, hundreds more under two dozen pen names, and who, at the time of his retirement, was the bestselling author in the world. Now, that’s a lot of unhappiness….
…Who, asked what had made him a novelist, replied, “My hatred for my mother. (That’s a lot of hatred.)…
…He had a daughter, who was psychotically in love with him. When she was a little girl she asked for a wedding ring, which he gave her. She had the ring enlarged to fit her finger as she grew. When she was twenty-five, she shot herself.
Q: Where does a young Parisienne get a gun?
A: From a gunsmith she read about in one of Papa’s novels.
Such facts could not have been made up, of course. And how much more powerful is the tragic story for being about a writer we all know. Yet the accounts of prostitutes and sexually abused women, none of whose names are divulged, are equally affecting.
Much of the book is written in the second person, as though to resurrect the deceased, but towards the end, the “you” shifts from former human friend to current representative thereof, Apollo, the Great Dane. Yet for this reader at least, the title ultimately refers to neither one. Such is the sustained openness and generosity of the prose, not to mention the courage in examining the subjects of death and particularly, suicide, that the friend in question seems to be Nunez herself.
Jenna Orkin, a former student of Sigrid Nunez, is the author of Ground Zero Wars: The Fight to Reveal the Lies of the EPA in the Wake of 9/11 and Clean Up Lower Manhattan.