FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

An Exploration of Suicide and Grief: Sigrid Nunez’ “The Friend”

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.

On writing:

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.

More articles by:

Jenna Orkin is the author of Writer Wannabe Seeks Brush With Death.

November 15, 2018
Kenneth Surin
Ukania: the Land Where the Queen’s Son Has His Shoelaces Ironed by His Valet
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Spraying Poisons, Chasing Ghosts
Anthony DiMaggio
In the Wake of the Blue Wave: the Midterms, Recounts, and the Future of Progressive Politics
Christopher Ketcham
Build in a Fire Plain, Get What You Deserve
Meena Miriam Yust
Today It’s Treasure Island, Tomorrow Your Neighborhood Store: Could Local Currencies Help?
Karl Grossman
Climate of Rage
Walter Clemens
How Two Demagogues Inspired Their Followers
Brandon Lee
Radical Idealism: Jesus and the Radical Tradition
Kim C. Domenico
An Anarchist Uprising Against the Liberal Ego
Elliot Sperber
Pythagoras in Queens
November 14, 2018
Charles Pierson
Unstoppable: The Keystone XL Oil Pipeline and NAFTA
Sam Bahour
Israel’s Mockery of Security: 101 Actions Israel Could Take
Cesar Chelala
How a Bad Environment Impacts Children’s Health
George Ochenski
What Tester’s Win Means
Louisa Willcox
Saving Romania’s Brown Bears, Sharing Lessons About Coxistence, Conservation
George Wuerthner
Alternatives to Wilderness?
Robert Fisk
Izzeldin Abuelaish’s Three Daughters were Killed in Gaza, But He Still Clings to Hope for the Middle East
Dennis Morgan
For What?
Dana E. Abizaid
The Government is Our Teacher
Bill Martin
The Trump Experiment: Liberals and Leftists Unhinged and Around the Bend
Rivera Sun
After the Vote: An Essay of the Man from the North
Jamie McConnell
Allowing Asbestos to Continue Killing
Thomas Knapp
Talkin’ Jim Acosta Hard Pass Blues: Is White House Press Access a Constitutional Right?
Bill Glahn
Snow Day
November 13, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Midterm Results are Challenging Racism in America in Unexpected Ways
Victor Grossman
Germany on a Political Seesaw
Cillian Doyle
Fictitious Assets, Hidden Losses and the Collapse of MDM Bank
Lauren Smith
Amnesia and Impunity Reign: Wall Street Celebrates Halliburton’s 100th Anniversary
Joe Emersberger
Moreno’s Neoliberal Restoration Proceeds in Ecuador
Carol Dansereau
Climate and the Infernal Blue Wave: Straight Talk About Saving Humanity
Dave Lindorff
Hey Right Wingers! Signatures Change over Time
Dan Corjescu
Poetry and Barbarism: Adorno’s Challenge
Patrick Bond
Mining Conflicts Multiply, as Critics of ‘Extractivism’ Gather in Johannesburg
Ed Meek
The Kavanaugh Hearings: Text and Subtext
Binoy Kampmark
Concepts of Nonsense: Australian Soft Power
November 12, 2018
Kerron Ó Luain
Poppy Fascism and the English Education System
Conn Hallinan
Nuclear Treaties: Unwrapping Armageddon
Robert Hunziker
Tropical Trump Declares War on Amazonia
John W. Whitehead
Badge of Shame: the Government’s War on Military Veterans
Will Griffin
Military “Service” Serves the Ruling Class
John Eskow
Harold Pinter’s America: Hard Truths and Easy Targets
Rob Okun
Activists Looking Beyond Midterm Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Mid-Term Divisions: The Trump Take
Dean Baker
Short-Term Health Insurance Plans Destroy Insurance Pools
George Wuerthner
Saving the Buffalohorn/Porcupine: the Lamar Valley of the Gallatin Range
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail