BookBrowse Reviews What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

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What Are You Going Through

by Sigrid Nunez

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez X
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
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  • Published:
    Sep 2020, 224 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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About this Book



An intense intellectual wander through matters of life and death.

Shortly into What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez, it becomes clear that the narrator is unreliable or, at the very least, absentminded; she has misled the reader by failing to mention a significant connection she has to another character. What additional details might she be withholding? This question becomes less consequential as the book winds on. The unnamed main character may conceal facts and approach the stories of others with marked bias, but what she shares soon begins to feel more important than what she doesn't, and the limits of her subjectivity begin to seem like the point.

If the novel is about any one thing, it is the narrator's experience of becoming involved in the end-of-life plans of a friend who has terminal cancer, but there are many detours along this main path. Like Nunez's National Book Award-winning novel The Friend, What Are You Going Through opts out of linear storytelling and follows the whims and quirks of its primary character's mind, sometimes striking out on tangents within tangents in a style that bears similarities to that of Rachel Cusk's Outline trilogy. The narrator seriously ponders her friend's condition, but she also takes the time to listen to a story told by a cat, describe the plot of a crime novel she finds in an Airbnb lodging and attend a dismal lecture about the state of the world. Events and reflections like these come together to reveal the character indirectly through her perceptions and interactions, transcending the borders of her perspective to give the reader a more complete picture of her.

The book's tendency to go down rabbit holes may be initially disconcerting for some, but its digressions are by turns conversational, humorous and philosophically engrossing. Just as secondary characters work to reveal the primary one, tangential preoccupations ranging from gender politics to aging and beauty to climate change eventually form the shape of what remains to be addressed: the probing question of how to exist in the midst of death — how to witness the death of a friend, the death of the planet — while still living life with any sense of purpose.

Through this question and the narrator's clearly limited point of view, Nunez's novel also focuses on communication and the realities people represent for one another. The title of the book is taken from the work of French philosopher Simone Weil (see Beyond the Book) — according to Weil, loving one's neighbor hinges on the ability to ask, "Quel est ton tourment?" or "What are you going through?" This question stands more or less as the antithesis of the obligatory American "How are you?" to which the expected response is a rote "Fine, how are you?" In keeping with Weil's encouragement towards meaningful connection, the unexpected bond the narrator forms with her friend during her illness bypasses customary social evasions and opens the way to a deeper examination of human relationships.

The book's most touching and striking element is its depiction of the intensity produced in situations where time is precious. Towards the end of the novel, the narrator mentions a book she is reading that compares watching someone die to falling in love. The two events seem to mesh in her mind as she considers her feelings about observing her friend's final days:

Jesus, you know, it wasn't supposed to happen like this. Even if it strikes me now as having been inevitable. But doesn't love always feel just so: destined, no matter how unexpected, no matter how improbable.

While there is nothing new in connecting love with death, Nunez's writing succeeds in capturing the strange, startling illumination both can bring. It also draws attention to how people sometimes diminish profound life experiences by corralling them into narrow ideas of beauty and romance. What Are You Going Through suggests that this diminishment may be overcome by a genuine curiosity about and interest in other human beings. As the narrator points out at one stage, Weil's question "What are you going through?" reads differently in the original French. She doesn't elaborate, but a literal translation of "Quel est ton tourment?" produces a question arguably even more generous and intimate, matching the generous and intimate tone of Nunez's novel: "What is your torment?"

Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

This review is from the What Are You Going Through. It first ran in the November 4, 2020 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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