Suppose you wanted to meditate a little about grief. And maybe weigh up what the act of writing is really for: The impulse of authors, the result for readers. Suppose, for that matter, you also wanted to do some serious thinking about human nature and noodle about the nature of friendship.
It’s a pretty good guess that you wouldn't try to do it all in a thin 200-page story. A story in which you never bother to name any of the characters. A story that's mostly about a dog. But this month has seen the publication of The Friend, a new novel from Sigrid Nunez. And it does attempt to present insights about grief, writing, human nature, and friendship. All in a brief little book mostly about a dog.
The almost impossible thing is that the novel works. The Friend is witty, wry, more than a little sad, and occasionally profound. The book is a complete surprise: an unexpected volume that is fun to read, about people you can imagine meeting and mourning when they're gone. To say nothing of the dog—who, unlike the human characters, is given a name: Apollo, after the Greek god of such things as healing, light, and prophecy.
It must be infinitesimally small, the chance that an enjoyable novel would contain, for instance, a scene of a woman reading aloud Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet to a giant, aging, and heart-broken Great Dane. But Sigrid Nunez's The Friend somehow manages the trick. "What are we, Apollo and I," the main character asks, thinking about Rilke's description of love, "if not two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other?"
The Friend is narrated by an unnamed woman, a middle-aged writing professor in New York. And as the story opens, she has suffered the suicide of a friend—and something more than a friend: A writer who was her own guide to writing, a mentor, a constant touchstone against which she tested herself.
He, that dead man, had been an enormous presence both in her actual life and in the mental rooms of her imagination. How could she not feel adrift in the days that follow, lost on a sea of grief? His death deprives her of friendship and regular human contact. It seems even to strip away her profession. The Friend takes as its epigraph a line from the novelist Nicholson Baker: "The question any novel is really trying to answer is, Is life worth living?" And the suicide of her writer friend surely suggests that writing is not enough to make life worth living.
But then her friend's wife—again an unnamed character, referred to by the cruel title "number three" (signifying both third wife and third wheel)—asks her to take the dead man's dog. Which the narrator does, although it is by any sane measure a mistake. Her apartment building doesn't allow pets, and Apollo's presence puts her in danger of losing the sweet deal she has with her rent-controlled lease. Besides, the dog is so heart-sick, he keeps everyone up at night as he howls for his dead master. He needs more exercise than the reclusive writing professor is prepared to give him. And he stinks, the way that big dogs do. As the widow had realized, he was not an ideal pet for his dead master, and even less does he belong with that master's sad friend in a small New York City apartment.
The narration throughout The Friend is fragmentary and truncated, a contemporary literary technique more often annoying than effective. But in Nunez's hands, for this particular story, the technique works perfectly to convey the oddly fragmentary and truncated life of a person caught up in grief. When we mourn, we invert reality: the absent thing seems overwhelmingly real in its absence, and all actually present things fade to a ghostly unreality. And the memories of the dead, the narrator's conversations with him, come in bits and pieces of painfully real reality.
Except for the dog, of course, who is so big, so loud, so stinky, that she cannot reduce him to the pale unimportance the world seems to have after her friend's death. Her friends worry that she will lose her apartment, but the narrator can't be bothered with even that unpleasant bit of reality. A woman she meets says that she's heard about the narrator: "You're the one who's in love with a dog." She isn't exactly, at that point, but the dog is the only being in the world tugging her out into the world as it actually is. She quotes a saying, "Dogs make people human," and she eventually realizes that dogs grieve better than humans do. They have an innocence "which humans pass through and leave behind, unable to return." And thus, "They don't commit suicide. They don't weep. But they can and do fall to pieces. They can and do have their hearts broken."
Along the way, she contemplates her friend's peculiarities. He was "to an almost pathological degree, incapable of being alone"—an awkward pathology for someone engaged in the profession of writing, which must always be undertaken alone. He solved the problem, as much as he could, by being a relentless skirt-chaser, always after any good-looking young women in his writing classes. "A great teacher was a seducer, you said," she remembers. "The classroom was the most erotic place in the world."
And those sorts of contemplation lead, in turn, to the narrator's reflections on writing. Once upon a time, writing had appeared—to Rilke, for instance—as a high noble artistic vocation, worthy of self-sacrifice and priestly ceremoniousness. But now her writing classes seem mockable, the influence of writing on the culture miniscule, and the goal of artistic transcendence a vain and illusory dream. Of course, to the grief-stricken, what doesn't seem vain and illusory? As it turns out, a dog: Apollo, the Great Dane whose intrusion into her life offers a chance for something different.
The Friend will prove the occasion for literary gossip, tied to Nunez's 1970s relation to David Rieff, the son of Susan Sontag. After Sontag's death in 2004, Rieff wrote a book about Sontag—and so did Nunez. And how can reviewers of this new novel (about the death of a writer, after all) stop themselves from retailing again the gossip that swirled around those books at the time?
But dragging all that up would be a diminishment of this new book. Sigrid Nunez has written a readable, enjoyable little book, and that should be enough. Sardonic in some places and filled with pathos in others, usually smart and occasionally even wise, The Friend deserves to stand on its own as it struggles with grief, writing, human nature, and friendship. To say nothing of the dog.