I Must Be Making It All Up: On Sigrid Nunez’s “The Vulnerables”
By Maisie Wiltshire-GordonNovember 7, 2023
The Vulnerables by Sigrid Nunez
The plot of Sigrid Nunez’s new novel The Vulnerables follows one such domino row. A friend of a friend is stranded in Los Angeles with no one to take care of her parrot back home in New York City, the prior caretaker having reneged on the job and fled to his parents’ country house. As it happens, the book’s bird-loving narrator-protagonist lives near the deserted creature and has recently offered her own home to a visiting pulmonologist, so she moves in with the bird. A week later, the prior caretaker—whom the narrator calls “Vetch,” after the weed—returns to the house following a fight with his parents. And so the three become an unlikely pandemic pod: she, a novelist and creative writing professor in late middle age; he, a young, attractive, and irritating NYU student; and the bird, a bright green macaw with a pensive disposition and a penchant for murmuring quietly to itself.
Although the novel takes place during the spring of 2020, our protagonist spends many of its pages recounting earlier times: her final pre-lockdown gathering, memories of her childhood, the backstory of a friend of a friend. Interspersed with these recollections are various “found” texts: apt Twitter posts, a startling phrase on a T-shirt, a quotation from an author. The movement between topics reflects a common lockdown experience: the difficulty of concentrating on just one thing. “It didn’t seem to matter what I turned my mind to,” the narrator tells us; “it was always prey to intrusive thoughts.”
But the pandemic’s influence extends even deeper into the novel’s form. Its prose exhibits a static quality—as if the writing itself is trapped inside, unable to leave the house or go about its business. The narrator often describes what she has seen or heard with verbless sentences—“[R]eports of a crisis in weight gain”; “Movie house marquee: see you on the other side.” Other common sentence starters include “I remember” and “I like,” which serve to establish distance from events: “I remember how I popped awake”; “I remember earning Girl Scout badges.” So too for sentences that begin “I like that Allen Ginsberg told a teenager” or “I like that Norman Mailer said”: the telling and the saying do not occur within the novel’s present.
Remembering and liking are lockdown verbs. They give us objects held still, not events in motion. The effect is scrapbook-like—a modern version of medieval florilegia, in which scholars would craft collections of quotes and aphorisms, the phrases like pressed flowers pasted onto the page. The novel’s citations, sensations, and memories feel like such a collection: a set of preserved blooms. “I can tell the story of my life in just four words,” the narrator says. “Good times, bad times.” But what kind of story is that? When do the times happen?
In his 2013 book The Antinomies of Realism, Fredric Jameson describes the realist novel as the product of an irresolvable tension: while “story” provides causality and meaning to past events, “scene” uses sensory descriptions to situate readers in an uncertain present. Jameson associates story with plot, destiny, and significance: it weaves events together in purposeful progression to create a unified whole. Storytelling offers the reassurance that each moment leads to the next for a good reason. As Nunez’s narrator writes of reading Dickens: “[Y]ou knew you were on your way to a happy ending, and you felt soothed.” Story needn’t come with a happy ending, of course, but you know you are on your way somewhere, which is soothing in its own way: by the time the book is over, you will understand why all this has mattered.
Scene, by contrast, centers the present moment without offering that sense of direction or significance. It describes sensory experiences and immediate feelings, foregrounding their unfinishedness rather than synthesizing them into a larger arc or big-picture understanding. Scene is the site of the ordinary and unremarkable: it is a surplus, a stream of information that fails to contribute to any broader project. Jameson calls it “an onslaught of sensation,” an “excess” that marks the “veritable liberation from meaning.”
Both story and scene are essential to novelistic structure; either form alone threatens to undo it. But their persistent tension holds particular salience for that first COVID-19 spring. Those of us deemed “inessential workers”—lucky enough both to have jobs and to be allowed to do them from home—inhabited the ordinary more deeply than ever, unable to escape our mundane surroundings. Again, this room. Again, this desk. Again, the dryer rattling against the closet. We sought whatever variation we could find—the blue mug or the green one today? It was better than thinking about the coronavirus. Not that we could avoid that, either: new kinds of grief, new vaccine trials, new lockdown workarounds that were better than nothing but also, somehow, worse. Outside, everything was changing, just as inside, nothing was changing. Jameson’s scene—the unfinished present—became newly oppressive. We yearned to know the arc of the plot: beginning, middle, and let there be an end.
The Vulnerables captures that sense of pandemic plotlessness through its static assemblages: anecdotes, feelings, quotes, fears, gripes, slogans, last words, movie trailers, metaphors, “things a person with a cell phone might have been tempted to snap and share.” The novel immerses us in this collection, guiding us through meandering thoughts that make no claim to narrative payoff.
Still, the novel does not forgo plot entirely. There is a sense of progression here, a significance to the row of dominoes. The sequence of events brings together unlikely characters, documents their wary interactions, tests the possibility of rapprochement. When the bird first meets the narrator, he screams. “And,” observes the narrator, “given that a parrot screaming is a parrot in distress, this was hardly a promising introduction.” The unanticipated housemate strikes the narrator as “flaky” and “[p]ossibly a budding ecoterrorist.” Over the course of the novel, these beginnings develop into middles and ends—a gentle arc shaped less by decisive events than by the slow workings of intimacy, the quiet influence of each creature on the others.
But the novel’s most valuable accomplishment is not merely its ability to walk Jameson’s tightrope. It does something that goes beyond either story or scene: it gathers elements and, without subordinating them to grander significance, finds a way to simply hold them together. Late in the novel, the narrator and Vetch lie head to head on two couches, slightly stoned, talking about their lives. They remain very different people, but their wide-ranging conversation acts as a consummation of the deep longing for connection that pervades the novel. The narrator is not the only one assembling quotes, memories, images: she and Vetch build a joint collection.
The first year of the pandemic brought a new system of categorization tasked with dividing all work—and thus all workers—into two groups: those who would carry out their jobs in person and those who would stay at home. The labels were blunt, disconcerting. Essential or inessential—where did you fall?
“For writers, the distinction was easy,” Nunez’s narrator writes. “Only journalists are essential. […] Silence all the journalists and we’d have the end of human rights.” She attends a Zoom talk exploring the value of novels in “dark times.” The general consensus, she learns, is that the genre has run its course. “[M]ore and more, fictional storytelling is coming across as beside the point. More and more writers are having difficulty quieting a voice that says, Why are you making things up?”
Why write fiction? The Vulnerables poses this question. So does Nunez herself, whose 2022 Sewanee Review essay “Life and Story” attempts a response. Several real-life anecdotes in that essay reappear in The Vulnerables, and Nunez acknowledges that all her novels use “at least some material from my own life.” Still, “I make up most of it,” she emphasizes. “I became a writer precisely because I wanted to make things up. To spin yarns. To lie my head off.”
But this belies the achievement of her novels, particularly this one. Part of what’s at stake in The Vulnerables is the ambiguous relationship between reality and invention. The narrator’s choice of names for her characters, for instance, emphasizes their inventedness: “I could call her Rose, or Violet, or Lily,” she muses; she informs us that “Vetch” is a pseudonym. This metafictional technique establishes a hierarchy of realism, creating the conditions for the narrator’s later honesty and vulnerability in what is perhaps the novel’s most affecting moment. Lockdown has ended; she and Vetch part ways. “Even now I sometimes find myself talking to him,” she thinks. “But when I do he is never ‘Vetch.’ Always his real name. His sweet name.” His real name: the invented epithet implies an actuality hidden beneath it. But in the next breath, the narrator complicates that newly exposed reality; artifice once again asserts itself: “But how could any of this have really happened? I must be making it up.”
When Nunez was very young, as her essay tells it, “I ended every story I wrote with the words And then I woke up! […] I think that I developed this bad habit at least partly because I was afraid that I might be seen as trying to pass off as reality something I had made up.” The Vulnerables brings the reality of fiction into question in a more interesting and ambiguous way than her childhood stories’ deflationary conclusions. She returns to the refrain more than once: “[I]t feels as if none of this could really have happened, that I must be making it all up.” But this is less an unmasking, a revelation of novelistic events as invented, than it is a recognition of the narrator’s particular form of agency: she is a writer.
The novel’s Zoom discussants worry about “the growing use of story as a means to distort and obscure reality.” Of course, if a novel can distort reality, it also might sharpen our view of it. But there is a more fundamental misconception here. Novels do not only represent reality (or fail to); they also remake it. The Vulnerables includes its share of fictional invention: it features characters who do not exist, events that did not occur, slogans that may never have appeared in store windows. But it invents something more significant as well: a way of connecting these things. The novel’s loose associations create resonances across disparate elements, not by subordinating them to a plot but simply by weaving them together. The opening sentence, for instance, quotes Virginia Woolf’s The Years; later, this leads the narrator to Annie Ernaux’s parallel novel of the same name. Ernaux, in turn, draws on a Georges Perec book comprised of sentences beginning “I remember,” which the narrator herself emulates—a book that was included in an anthology the narrator longed to join. These circling, twisting threads form tentative moments of contact, connections amid experiences of fracture.
Nunez’s debt to Woolf, evident throughout the novel, comes through particularly clearly in these loose assemblages. Woolf was a master of assembly: think of The Waves’s polyphonic voices, mingling like sea-foam. Or the seashells, paint pots, and summer guests in To the Lighthouse, and Mrs. Ramsay’s attempts at “merging and flowing and creating” a unity from disparate parts. For both Nunez and Woolf, this creative, connective work allows for richer communities and more complex selves. In To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe tries to “start the tune of Mrs. Ramsay in her head” by remembering the way she opens windows, the rhythm of her walk, her love of young couples. In The Vulnerables, the narrator’s many memories start the tune of herself, building her character through a web of citations.
“I remember” puts the past in stasis, like pressed flowers in a scrapbook. But it also makes the present a period of scrapbooking: of bringing experiences together, of making something out of memories. “I forget” appears regularly in the novel as well: “I once wrote something in which I made a reference to Madonna, though I no longer remember the context”; “first in line was a girl whose name I forget (along with what country she was from).” Failures of memory foreground the fact that these verbs are not simply vehicles for describing the past; they are processes occurring in the present. Remembering and forgetting are not merely ways to access memories, but ways to build something from their scattered fragments.
Some of The Vulnerables’ elements come from life, others from Nunez’s imagination. But their structure operates on a different dimension from truth and falsehood. When the novel gathers quotes, sights, and sounds, they become gathered. The words create something in themselves: they form relationships. “I must be making it all up,” the narrator says. She is, of course. But this does not make it less real.
Ursula K. Le Guin, in her 1986 essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” posits the novel form as a kind of container. She draws on the anthropological theory that the first cultural object was not “the sticks spears and swords” of popular imagination but likely some form of basket or sling. “A novel is a medicine bundle,” she writes, “holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.” Fiction gleans its power like kernels of wheat, collected and carried home.
Nunez’s pandemic setting lends a distinctive richness to her carrier bag approach. The novel’s ad hoc assemblages mirror our unlikely pandemic pods, the difficulty of focus, the challenge of finding a story structure amid the onslaught of new developments. The Vulnerables resists the allure of a tidy arc. But neither does it fully yield to the disconnect of the present. Instead, it forms links and webs, offering intentional assembly at a time when assembly seemed beyond our control—when we were thrown together based on circumstance, separated from those we cared for most.
“Every story worth telling is a love story,” the narrator writes. “But this is not that story.” She’s right, but only because The Vulnerables is not a story—not purely a story. It collects diverse objects and forges links out of happenstance, creating a structure that insists on the possibility of connection. The novel’s most valuable offering comes from its ability to gather elements and hold them together, as we wished to hold one another. In this respect, love pervades every page.
Maisie Wiltshire-Gordon is an essayist and PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, where she studies the relationship between ethics and literary form. Her writing appears in The Paris Review, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere.
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