THE ONLY GREAT MOVIE I have no intention of ever seeing again is Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. The story of a proud and impoverished pensioner evicted from his rooming house along with his beloved dog, Umberto D. is the work in which De Sica took his genius for melting the distance between the audience and the people on screen as far as it could go. I have never been so wiped out by a movie. Seeing it at 20 was like having fears I never entertained, fears of being old, destitute, and alone. The idea of seeing it, as 60 looms, is unthinkable.
In Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Friend, the narrator, a writer whose best friend has committed suicide, takes the friend’s now ownerless Great Dane into her 500-square-foot New York City apartment. Nunez’s novel does not, thank goodness, have the intensity of De Sica’s film (almost nothing does), but there are moments in it I found so piercing that I wondered who I could recommend it to: My girlfriend, whose cherished Maltese she has said will be her last dog? My ex- and best friend who recently lost the 21-year-old cat we raised together? My writer friends who are also teachers and would wince at Nunez’s descriptions of today’s English and writing undergraduates? The avid readers in my family, who are still raw from the shade of suicide that recently touched our family?
“[N]ot a story I needed to hear twice,” Nunez says of one of the tales she relates, of pets abandoned (and, mercifully, found by more conscientious caretakers), of her narrator facing old age and perhaps homelessness (her apartment building has a rule against dogs), of the moments every writer comes to when they ask themselves just what in the hell they’re doing. Still, the reader who makes their way through The Friend has to read every one of those tales at least once, and they all hurt. The Friend renders the questions that comes over you at 3:00 a.m. (do I kill myself? am I always going to be alone? do I give up writing and try something else — and what?). All of this being the low-level psychic buzz we carry within during our waking as well as our insomniac hours.
This makes it all the nobler — I use that word deliberately — that the book works through despair to an endnote of acceptance and even hope. In “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James protested (politely, of course) the demand that the end of a novel be “a course of dessert and ices.” But too many readers and critics reflexively believe that the hopeless end, the book in which misery is unremitting, is the truest one. Scars heal in The Friend, but they still show. And since suicide hangs over the book, the implicit conclusion the narrator comes to, that life can still yield pleasure, feels hard won.
At times The Friend reads like a writer’s notebook — diary entries sharing space with literary anecdotes, themes pursued for a few pages before another train of thought takes over. At the bottom of it all is the narrator’s grief over her friend’s suicide. And from the context in which Nunez places this death, it’s as if that suicide, as inexplicable as this one seems to the narrator, is a reasonable alternative to being cast out by a cultural and social landscape in which the narrator’s friend was becoming a dinosaur.
At her friend’s memorial, the narrator hears someone say he is now officially a Dead White Male. The dead man was, as the narrator herself is, a writer and a writing teacher, but one extinct before his time. Nunez makes you see everything irritating about her dead friend: his womanizing, his foolish reluctance to tone down his behavior (he still refers to his female students as “dear”), his egotistical insistence on linking the forces that want to tame him to the infantilization of the culture. In comparing him to the protagonist of J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, the narrator says he was “one of several Lurian friends I’ve known: reckless priapic men risking careers, livelihoods, marriages — everything. (As to why, the stakes being what they are, the only explanation I’ve ever been able to come up with is: because that’s how men are.)” That is a succinct description of the coexistence of daring and dumbness in a certain generation of American male writers. And yet, despite the friend’s pomposity, despite the self-regarding (and self-amused) way in which he invests his sexual hunger and vanity with cultural weight, she still responds to what’s vital in this man. She doesn’t share a gender with her friend, but rather a generation.
The Friend, then, is a novel about two people, one dead, one living, who, different as they are from each other, are still appalled by the milquetoast tendencies of their culture. And because the narrator is the one left behind, her disconnect from the attitudes of the world she inhabits becomes almost a rehearsal for her own extinction. That disconnect is illustrated largely by the narrator’s relationship with her students. Nunez understands that for all its vaunted dedication to social justice, today’s generation of writing and English students are among the most conservative in memory, the most willing to judge art by its moral virtues. If you want to understand the difference between the aesthetic sensibility and the therapeutic, prescriptive, proscriptive sensibility, which believes aesthetics should be subordinated to social consciousness, you need look no further than the narrator’s superb examination of My Dog Tulip, J. R. Ackerley’s account of his platonic love affair with his German Shepherd Queenie. The book is much beloved, rightly regarded as a great memoir and, as Nunez understands, a work of deep misanthropy. (That’s probably one of the reasons it’s so beloved. Who hasn’t, after a day of dealing with dolts, after loved ones have let you down, looked at a cherished pet and thought, “I so much prefer you to most of the people I know.”)
Nunez’s narrator lays out that misanthropy, particularly when it comes to women, and she lays out the blindness of Ackerley’s love for Queenie, his determination to honor her animal nature by domesticating her as little as possible and thus exacerbating the behavioral problems that make her life and her owner’s life miserable. And still the narrator recognizes the book as a love story in something like the way Lolita is: not the idealized vision of love that refuses to believe it could ever be selfish or cruel, but a view that recognizes love can be all those things, while blind and obsessive to boot, and still achieve a kind of glory. “To me,” the narrator writes, “Ackerley had experienced to the fullest the kind of mutual unconditional love that everyone craves but most people never know.” And you understand, when the narrator talks about her writing students at the college where she teaches that, for them, Ackerley’s misogyny and failings as a pet owner would have been sufficient grounds not just to condemn his character but to find the literary worth wanting.
At one point, the narrator quotes an unbuttoned interview given by her dead friend in which he says, “What a load of crap, this notion of making the university a safe place. Think of all the wonderful things in life that could never have happened — all the great things that would never have been created or discovered or even imagined — if the top priority had been to make everyone feel safe. Who’d want to live in such a world?” She knows that intemperate tone left her friend vulnerable to attack. But she also knows that the unspoken answer to his question, “Who’d want to live in such a world?” is plenty of people. This is the kinship that survives his death.
I have read books that deal eloquently with the anger caused by the loss of a loved one. But when Nunez’s narrator notes, “Walking in Midtown, rush hour’s peak, people streaming in both directions, I find myself seething, ready to kill. Who are all these fucking people, and how is it fair, how is it even possible that all of them, these perfectly ordinary people should be alive,” I was gobsmacked by that startling experience of finding a writer has put your private thoughts on the page. I spent days feeling just that anger in the months after my mother’s death, days wondering why so many obviously unworthy people were still alive when she was dead. The one friend I had dared tell, worried about me, not wanting me to marinate in my anger, and quickly tried to dissuade me from feeling that way. Of course, that didn’t keep me from feeling it. As Nunez renders these feelings, this is the seduction of grief, the way it tempts you to isolation, the way it tempts you away from life itself.
As it becomes clear how much time the narrator needs to allot Apollo, the Great Dane she is left to care for, that urge to withdraw finds a justification. The narrator can’t go anywhere for long because, when she returns, she will find Apollo depressed and anxious, as if wondering whether she will become the third person to abandon him. (The dead man found Apollo abandoned in Central Park.) Before Apollo becomes a real presence in the last third of the novel he is portrayed by the narrator as a burden: he’s the thing that is going to get her kicked out of her apartment; the guilt she carries with her when she is away from him; a constant reminder of her dead friend. Gradually, and without sentimentality, Apollo becomes a road back to life (if not fully to other people), and earns the right to have the novel’s title refer to him as much as to the friend the narrator is grieving.
But even as the narrator is spared the most immediate of her fears, even as Apollo (who, she discovers, likes to be read to, approaching her with a volume of Knausgaard between his massive jaws, dropping it in her lap the way some dogs who want to play catch drop a ball) becomes a companion instead of a burden, even as her grief subsides, another loss looms. Great Danes live six to eight years and, by the end of the book, Apollo is slowing down and on painkillers. The pair enjoy a holiday by the ocean — which recalls an anecdote earlier in the book about a man praying his aging cat is given one last summer — though the holiday feels less an idyll than a respite. The cottage they stay in carries reminders of loss, family pictures of the cottage’s owner, now near death, her late husband, and the roses planted by the dying woman. Everywhere in this novel it is impossible to separate love and companionship from loss. Nunez’s gift to her narrator, to the narrator’s massive companion, and to the reader, is not to banish loss or pretend it can ever be banished, but to take in the warmth of the sun, the lap and sparkle of the water, to allow us the time and space to breathe with the realization that these treasures still exist, even in the face of death. The Friend is one of those rare novels that, in the end, makes your heart beat slower.