Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: A review

A writer's lifelong friend and mentor (also a writer) unexpectedly commits suicide. He leaves behind a 180 pound harlequin Great Dane. His third wife, now his widow, informs the writer that her dead friend had expressed the desire that if anything happened to him, she should take the dog. The writer lives in a 500 square foot apartment on the fifth floor of an apartment building in New York. Her lease forbids dogs. Nevertheless, she decides to take the dog. How could she not? Philosophizing and magical thinking ensue. The end.

There you have the gist of this rather strange little book which just won this year's National Book Award for Fiction.

The heroine of the story is that unnamed writer who rents the tiny apartment and who takes in the giant dog. Not only is the heroine unnamed, none of the characters in the book (with three notable exceptions) are named. They are all referred to by their role titles: Wife No. 1, Wife No. 2, Wife No. 3, student, landlord, professor, etc. The notable exceptions who are given names are the Great Dane (named Apollo), a miniature Dachshund named Jip, and the apartment super Hector.

The heroine is not a dog person. She has always considered herself a cat person, and yet she becomes completely devoted to Apollo because he helps her feel closer to her absent friend. At some point, he seems to become, in her mind, an incarnation of the friend that she has lost. Thus, the magical thinking. 

The dog is grieving, too, and so she devotes herself to trying to assuage his grief, and, in doing so, to alleviate her own. She meditates on the nature of grief and the nature of her relationship with her lost friend. She has sessions with a therapist who tells her that she was actually in love with her friend and that is why she is so bereft. She wonders if that is true.

Included in her narrative are anecdotes about and quotations from the works of many authors. These flow effortlessly and naturally through the chronicle, as do her meditations on the workings of the male brain and the basis of misogyny. At one point she opines:
“Tempted to put too much faith in the great male mind, remember this: It looked at cats and declared them gods. It looked at women and asked, Are they human? And, once that nut had been cracked: But do they have souls?”
She references reading several current day writers, including Karl Ove Knausgaard whose book Apollo destroys, causing her to have to get a replacement. She is, in fact, a constant reader and she learns that Apollo is calmed and soothed by her reading aloud. He is a literary dog. 

This is a book in which nothing much happens. It exudes a mournful tone throughout as we follow the year and more progression of the woman's and the dog's grief as they soothe and comfort each other. There are moments of humor as there would almost have to be with such a large dog living in such a small apartment and the jokes pretty much write themselves. And there is some drama when the heroine is threatened with eviction because of the dog. But, primarily, this is a meditation about friendship, love, and grief.

The book is unique. The writer whose work I can most readily compare it to is Rachel Cusk. There is something about the rhythm of the sentences and the structure of the story that reminds me of her writing.

I don't know that I would necessarily agree with the jury that chose this as the National Book Award winner; there are so many outstanding works of fiction out this year. But it certainly deserved to be considered.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

4 comments:

  1. Well, good. I was quite surprised when this book won. I saw a clip of Nunez reading from the book and caught the wry humor. I am glad to know you liked it.

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    1. I was surprised also. I don't think it would have been my choice, although I did enjoy it.

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  2. It sounds quirky, with the dog and all. You are right that there have been plenty of outstanding books released this year. I'm still trying to fit in some into my next year's schedule since this year was so slow. Hopefully I'll read more next year.

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    1. Well, the great thing about books is there is no time limit on when they can be enjoyed.

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