The Saddest Stories Ever: On Sigrid Nunez’s “What Are You Going Through”
By Anna E. ClarkOctober 26, 2020
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
Where What Are You Going Through differs, though, is in how it situates intimate tales of individual lives in a simmering atmosphere of collective doom. The novel contains as clear-eyed an account of humanity’s grim prospects as you’re likely to find in fiction, but it is grounded in a series of stories about people — mostly women — facing the defeats and indignities of aging and dying. The subjects are all what you might expect — lost looks, lost health, isolation — but Nunez’s accounts are as sensitive as a polygraph’s needle, the precision of her observations turning banality itself into a source of pathos. Recounting one story, the narrator pauses: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” It’s the first line of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, a 1915 novel of confused, tragic lives set just before World War I, and it becomes a kind of refrain in What Are You Going Through. Listen well enough, it says, and there are many saddest stories.
The tension between individual and collective experience is familiar territory for Nunez. Earlier novels such as For Rouenna (2001) and Salvation City (2010) explore the personal aftermaths of mass atrocities, while A Feather on the Breath of God (1995) and The Last of Her Kind (2006) consider how desire intersects with group identities: national, racial, ideological, generational. Often skipping between past and present, Nunez’s fiction tends to circle back on individual memories of shared events, weighing the personal against the communal. In What Are You Going Through, though, she shifts the tense and broadens the scale. Set sometime in the years after 2016, the novel suggests that the thing to be grappled with is no longer what has happened (though that creeps in too) but what’s to come — one’s own decline and death, yes, but maybe also that of the world as we know it.
Written prior to the current pandemic but startlingly anticipatory of its preoccupations, the idea of civilization’s end appears early in the novel. The narrator attends a talk given by a famous author, a dispassionate explanation of the various ways humanity has shot itself in the foot. Summarized for the reader, it is not a call to action but a manifesto against hope: “No more the faith and consolation that had sustained generations and generations, the knowledge that, though our own individual time on earth must end, what we loved and what had meaning for us would go on […] that time ha[s] ended.” Faced with the effects of our own shortsighted cruelty and greed, the famous author concludes, the only “moral” thing to do is “ask forgiveness” and “say goodbye.”
The scene rivets, but not because of the famous author’s litany of horrors (any reader even passingly conversant with current events will find them all too recognizable). Here and throughout the novel, what feels sharp and startling is the way Nunez embeds ideas about the world’s end within layers of mundane yet nuanced context, splitting our attention between end-times meditations and the small, fascinating spectacles of normal life. In Nunez’s description of the author’s talk, narratives of genocide and climate crisis sit next to wry portraits of familiar academic types and the stuffy conventions of formal lectures. We hear too of the narrator’s personal dramas: she is there because the famous author is her ex. Away from home and visiting a cancer-stricken friend (another slow death), she has spied a flyer for the talk posted at her Airbnb. It is the coincidence of the ex’s presence rather than the topic that compels her to go. A final kicker: Much of the audience, including the narrator, is both miffed and bored by the talk. The content, after all, is familiar, recently published by the famous author in a magazine article.
What Nunez so aptly depicts, in other words, is the jarring incongruity of thinking about impending horrors from within a present that feels largely the same as it ever was. It’s an experience that renders the everyday strange, the harbingers of crisis trite. When the narrator and the audience leave the talk, “moving herdishly out of the auditorium,” she notes the anomalous yet appropriate “crisp night air.” It’s been one of the warmest years on record, but in that moment it is “the perfect seasonable temperature for that month in that part of the world.”
Nunez’s novels rival those of Dickens in their fascination with coincidence, but for her they are less plot drivers than ways to consider how we make meaning, as likely to be arbitrary as revelatory. The same is true of the associations What Are You Going Through creates among its dense, multifarious references, quotes and intertexts accruing significance through proximity. In one example, Jesus, du weisst (Jesus, You Know), a 2003 Austrian documentary in which six Catholics pray out loud facing a camera, their complaints surprisingly self-absorbed and trivial, becomes a counterpoint to both a podcast about being terminally ill and the narrator’s own dark night of the soul. Listening to the dying speakers on the podcast, the narrator is struck by the amount of accord she hears among the participants — and by how boring she finds it. She reflects, “I can’t help suspecting that, rather than say what they really think or feel, these people are saying what they think other people want to hear. Meaning, what is acceptable, appropriate — becoming.” We fail in our attempts to represent the truth and urgency of our own suffering, but even being able to recognize the falsehoods and clichés doesn’t make finding the right language easier. From within her own crisis, the narrator too falls back on the familiar words: “Jesus, you know, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this.”
Most evocative of all is the novel’s juxtaposition of the friend with cancer and the famous author — that is, the slowly dying woman and the Cassandra-like ex, dutifully delivering his message of slow death in the form of a polite academic lecture. Both characters insist that narratives of hope and bravery in the face of suffering and death are fundamentally dishonest. The friend, we are told, stops attending group therapy when, after one woman’s terrible confession, her fellow participants refuse to acknowledge the truth of her experience and instead try to recast it as something more cheerful. “Always the same inane advice, the same clichés about the power of positive thinking and miracles happening and not giving up and letting cancer win. And all it did was remind her how hard it was for people to accept reality,” says the narrator. The ex might agree. Reflecting on the unsympathetic responses his work has received, he lashes out: “I’m reporting the facts. Why should so much of the response be so hostile to me?”
And yet, the truths that the friend and the ex value seem subtly but importantly different. When the narrator happens upon the famous author at yet another stop on his tour, she presses him on why he delivers the talks if he believes that hope is truly lost. “I guess I want at least to be able to look my grandchildren in the eye when they’re old enough to ask me where were you,” he replies. “And even if I know there’s no longer any hope of waking up idiot humanity in time, why shouldn’t they have to hear the truth?” Beloved grandchildren and “idiot humanity” grate against one another, the former’s specificity belying the latter’s crass generality. It’s such generality that the dying friend refuses, as well as the novel, asking us to hold the specificity of each life, each story, together with the collective terms of our fate.
Today it’s unfashionable to call someone a moral writer, a term that connotes stuffiness and artless didacticism, but Nunez both earns and redeems the title. Among the keenest observers of the messiness of pity, compassion, and love, her writing takes ideas about how we should treat other beings seriously while never losing sight of the social conditions that make such work so complicated and hard. What Are You Going Through offers a masterful representation of what it’s like to live in a shared state of slow death, a state in which, as Berlant suggests, “life building and the attrition of human life are indistinguishable,” and when, perhaps, we need the truth of other people more than ever.
Anna E. Clark is a writer, teacher, and academic in San Diego.
Anna E. Clark is an assistant professor of 19th-century literature at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. Her essays and reviews have recently appeared in Public Books and the Chicago Tribune.
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