Laura Kip­nis

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Laura Kip­nis

The Friend by Si­grid Nunez

The Friend by Si­grid Nunez. River­head, 212 pp., $25.00

These are dark days for ag­ing male se­duc­ers, par­tic­u­larly those ply­ing their trade as writ­ing pro­fes­sors. Imag­ine your­self as a com­mit­ted shag­ger of stu­dents—it’s your lifeblood! it keeps you vi­tal!—gray­ing out of the charisma you once pos­sessed. Your the­o­ries about the erotics of the class­room sounded more con­vinc­ing back in the 1980s. Once it was easy to at­tract young acolytes who fol­lowed you around, hang­ing on your ev­ery lit­er­ary ref­er­ence. These days they find you a lit­tle gross, re­coil from your kisses—charges are likely to be brought. Even call­ing them “dear” cre­ates com­plaints. When you man­age to wran­gle one into the sack, she’s not ex­actly as­woon with de­sire. You catch a glimpse of your flac­cid torso in a ful­l­length ho­tel room mir­ror and sud­denly un­der­stand why.

What’s left but to kill your­self, as the men­tor and friend ad­dressed only as “you” by the un­named nar­ra­tor of Si­grid Nunez’s The Friend has done (we’re not told how), shortly be­fore the novel opens. Which is how the nar­ra­tor—let me call her N for con­ve­nience—comes to in­herit a de­pressed and ag­ing 180pound Great Dane named Apollo with a head like a pony’s, who barely fits into her rent-sta­bi­lized five-hun­dred­square-foot New York apart­ment where dogs aren’t al­lowed in the first place. (Los­ing a rent-sta­bi­lized apart­ment would be a tragedy of such epic pro­por­tions that the only hu­man char­ac­ter granted a name in this book is the build­ing’s Mex­i­can su­per, Hec­tor. Re­call that Apollo came to Hec­tor’s aid in the Iliad; here Hec­tor re­turns the fa­vor by not get­ting N evicted.)

But first, a few words about “you,” whom we come to know en­tirely through N’s ob­ses­sive rem­i­nis­cences, since dwelling on him is a way of keep­ing him with her. “When a solip­sist dies, af­ter all, ev­ery­thing goes with him,” David Fos­ter Wal­lace wrote in a fa­mously pat­ri­ci­dal (and ex­ceed­ingly sanc­ti­mo­nious, I’ve al­ways thought) es­say on writ­ers he des­ig­nated the “Great Male Nar­cis­sists” of the post­war gen­er­a­tion, namely Nor­man Mailer, John Updike, and Philip Roth. The prospect of their own deaths, in­vari­ably pre­ceded by the demise of their sex­ual prow­ess, seemed to these “lit­er­ary phal­locrats” coter­mi­nous with the death of the novel it­self, said Wal­lace, pound­ing sharp rep­ri­mand­ing nails into their col­lec­tive cof­fin. Though no less self-ab­sorbed and cer­tainly no less a phal­lo­crat, “you” never quite made it to these el­e­vated lit­er­ary ech­e­lons. Midlist at best (un­less sub-midlist is a cat­e­gory), he nev­er­the­less re­garded his phys­i­cal de­cline and the de­cline of lit­er­ary value as twinned catas­tro­phes. Is The Friend a trib­ute or a nail in a cof­fin? Nunez cer­tainly nails a type. Though N is noth­ing if not gen­er­ous re­gard­ing “you”’s short­com­ings, among her themes is sta­tus in the lit­er­ary world, about which she’s de­light­fully scathing: the viper­ish com­pet­i­tive­ness (“I hope there are more peo­ple than this at my memo­rial”), the tragedy of not achiev­ing what you’d en­vi­sioned for your­self as a writer, the wounded van­ity and req­ui­site self-de­cep­tions that en­sue. And the de­pres­sion. And the writer’s block.

The por­trait of “you” is dev­as­tat­ingly drawn and all too fa­mil­iar: the “writer’s writer” who con­soles him­self that sell­ing more than three thousand copies is sell­ing out, who’d once had his more ador­ing stu­dents con­vinced he might some­day nab a No­bel. Jeff Daniels de­liv­ered an ag­o­niz­ingly, preen­ingly acute per­for­mance of ex­actly this man in Noah Baum­bach’s film The Squid and the Whale (2005): a Brook­lyn writ­ing pro­fes­sor and on­ce­promis­ing nov­el­ist who re­gards him­self as se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion for ev­ery clas­sic on the book­shelf. You un­der­stand that the pom­pos­ity is re­quired to per­fume over the stench of fail­ure, you may even feel pained on his be­half, but it’s still a queasy-mak­ing spec­ta­cle to wit­ness.

“You” had re­cently given up teach­ing, which may have con­trib­uted to his de­pres­sion, but also sounds prag­matic given the new im­per­a­tives. The sex­ual cor­rect­ness of stu­dents had be­come un­bear­able—as it has for most writ­ing pro­fes­sors I’ve talked to lately. (A friend re­cently de­scribed an MFA sem­i­nar de­voted to Chekhov’s “Lady with the Dog” in which stu­dents fo­cused en­tirely on whether Gurov was a preda­tor for the du­ra­tion of a three­hour class.) Even for as­pir­ing writ­ers, self-censorship is the rule—phys­i­cal de­scrip­tions of char­ac­ters are limited to hair color for fear of of­fend­ing some­one. There’s plenty of cyn­i­cal in­side dope on the teach­ing racket in The Friend for those who aren’t liv­ing that par­tic­u­lar dream: the mis­ery of of­fice hours, the inanity of fac­ulty meet­ings (press­ing agenda item: should stu­dents be al­lowed to read as­signed books on their cell phones?), the dark jokes over drinks in the fac­ulty club about which stu­dents one would or wouldn’t take a bullet for in the event of a school shoot­ing.

N was once one of “you”’s de­voted stu­dent co­terie—they joked they were a lit­er­ary Manson fam­ily and pa­thet­i­cally im­i­tated his style. Now a writer and teacher her­self, N has been his loyal lieu­tenant in the ego-boost­ing depart­ment for the past thirty years, still hang­ing on his lit­er­ary in­sights (“write about what you see,” “no writ­ing is ever wasted”) these many years later. Yet there was some­thing more than a tad un­re­quited in their per­fect friend­ship. “I never heard the news that you’d fallen in love with­out ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a pang, nor could I sup­press a surge of joy each time I heard that you were break­ing up with some­one.” She counts her­self lucky for never hav­ing had her heart bro­ken by him—or that’s what she says. (“Didn’t you? A ther­a­pist once goaded me,” she con­fesses.) Is “you” why N has stayed sin­gle all these years, the shrink won­ders. As do we. The painful unasked ques­tion: Given their won­der­ful in­ti­macy, why wasn’t “you”’s love life with N? He’d bed­ded her once, years ago, af­ter be­ing her teacher—star­tling her by telling her bluntly, af­ter they’d com­menced a friend­ship, that they should fuck. (“We should find that out about each other” is how he puts it.) To which she, of course, ac­cedes, af­ter which he in­ex­pli­ca­bly friend­zones her, to use the cur­rent par­lance.

Her feel­ings of re­jec­tion quelled (sort of), they’ve be­come the best of pals—clos­est when he’s in be­tween wives, when they play­act at cou­ple­dom, since “you” is in­ca­pable of be­ing alone. But who re­ally gets over be­ing erot­i­cally side­lined? He’d gone on to marry a class­mate and friend of N’s, and envy about their pas­sion eats at her decades later—“Even now it has the force of leg­end for me: beau­ti­ful, ter­ri­ble, doomed.” Be­ing around the two of them “was like be­ing near a fur­nace.” It was a pas­sion he cer­tainly never felt for her, yet about which he fre­quently spoke to her, mulling over his erotic messes and en­list­ing her as the keeper of his se­crets, in­clud­ing from his sub­se­quent wives. N hates hear­ing his sex­ual con­fes­sions, yet ever-com­pli­ant, never men­tions that to him.

Not sur­pris­ingly, one de­tects in N a cer­tain tart­ness to­ward the var­i­ous women “you” has left be­hind, those more suc­cess­ful at lodg­ing them­selves in his erotic af­fec­tions than she had been. She as­signs the wives num­bers, like in­mates—One, Two, and Three; a re­cent con­quest is la­beled “nine­teenand-a-half” be­cause that’s her age, so young that the “half” still makes a dif­fer­ence. When it comes to her feel­ings for “you,” there’s some read­ing be­tween the lines re­quired since N is a mas­ter of in­di­rec­tion, with a com­pen­dium of art­ful di­gres­sions up her sleeve. We learn, for in­stance, that as a child she imag­ined her­self a fairy-tale princess in Grimm’s Ra­pun­zel story, whose tears might save the wounded prince who’d been blinded in a sui­cide at­tempt. About the witch who’d driven him to it, peeved to have lost Ra­pun­zel to him: “Even as a child I thought the witch had a right to be an­gry. A prom­ise is a prom­ise.”

Who had promised what to whom? Had “you” promised some­thing and re­neged? Per­haps so, emo­tion­ally speak­ing, but N never held it against him. Right?

N is one of those nar­ra­tors over whom a small cloud of un­re­li­a­bil­ity hov­ers: she’s slightly self-es­tranged, book­ish, emo­tion­ally un­fa­mil­iar with her­self. De­spite so much time spent in her own com­pany she seems on for­mal terms with her de­sires; a bit li­bid­i­nally muted. There are places she doesn’t wish to press her­self too hard about, such as the porous­ness be­tween friend­ship, un­re­quited love, and buried hos­til­ity. In­stead she moves through the world with a caul­dron of un­ex­pressed rage sim­mer­ing be­neath the sur­face. (None of it di­rected at “you,” how­ever, her ther­a­pist points out.) Some per­cent­age is chan­neled into her ob­ser­va­tions about the ac­tiv­ity of writ­ing it­self and the in­her­ent ag­gres­sion of the ac­tiv­ity, as when she de­tects in Christa Wolf “the fear that writ­ing about some­one is a way of killing that per­son.” An un­named au­thor is quoted on the sub­ject of “word peo­ple” ver­sus “fist peo­ple.” Adds N: “As if words could not also be fists. Aren’t of­ten fists.”

As they cer­tainly are here. Not just fists, but very sharp dag­gers, as when N re­marks on the pat­tern of “you”’s late sex­ual style, which cen­tered on young women more at­tracted to “the thrill of bring­ing an older man in a po­si­tion of au­thor­ity to his knees” than in ac­tu­ally hav­ing sex with him. Was there ever a more dev­as­tat­ing com­men­tary on the hu­mil­i­a­tions in store for ag­ing lothar­ios? Nev­er­the­less, the punches aren’t cheap, nor are these po­lit­i­cal

points be­ing scored; it’s not that kind of book; it’s as much el­egy as in­dict­ment. The writ­ing is beau­ti­fully spare and con­trolled, a style suited to frag­mented tales such as N’s with “you.” Thoughts are cut short, as was his life. The jokes are dark, as is her world. The form it­self is fickle: a novel im­per­son­at­ing a mem­oir im­per­son­at­ing a griev­ing friend, stuck on a frus­trat­ing love in­ter­est, and cir­cling around and around a sim­ple emo­tional truth, which is that some­one didn’t love her the way she wanted to be loved. Or per­haps not at all.

En­ter a new love. Af­ter be­ing alerted by Wife Three that “you” had promised N would take Apollo if nec­es­sary (the first N has heard of it), the dog moves in. N is still dev­as­tated by the sui­cide— griev­ing like a wife or lover, her shrink points out. So is the dog, who is sub­ject to anx­i­ety fits, cow­er­ing and shiv­er­ing un­con­trol­lably for the first few weeks of their co­hab­i­ta­tion. “Don’t ex­pect him to change into Mr. Happy Dog,” says the vet, as if di­ag­nos­ing his pre­vi­ous owner too.

In­deed, this mas­sive in­truder into her life has hazel eyes that are “strik­ingly hu­man; they re­mind me of yours.” The two of them cer­tainly seemed to this reader like stand-ins for one an­other. Apollo treats her in a sim­i­larly high-handed way: they sleep to­gether at his in­sis­tence, mir­ror­ing her night with “you.” Like “you” Apollo takes what he wants, climb­ing into her bed night af­ter night, though the vet pro­scribes it. (Un­like his for­mer owner, he’s been neutered.) He’s the one who calls the shots in the re­la­tion­ship and sets the pace—some­times he’s fas­ci­nated by her, the rest of the time in­dif­fer­ent. He does what he wants with her body, thrust­ing his nose into her neck, wak­ing her in the mid­dle of the night. In bed he puts a mas­sive paw “the size of a man’s fist” on her chest. “He must be able to feel my heart,” she thinks. (Un­like “you,” I thought.)

“Re­mem­ber, the last thing you want is for him to start think­ing you’re his bitch,” in­structs the vet, ad­vice N might have prof­ited from a few decades ear­lier. Apollo is so large that he at­tracts stares on the street; even the size of his turds—N takes to car­ry­ing a child’s sand pail and a gar­den trowel to clean them up—are cause for amaze­ment and glee by as­sorted passersby. “I can’t be­lieve they dumped a mon­ster like that on you,” says Wife One when she gets a look at Apollo on Skype. “No won­der no one wants him.”

Yes, N has been left to shovel up the shit, but in her scram­bled, griev­ing psy­che, by sav­ing this un­wanted dog per­haps she’ll be sav­ing “you” as well? Maybe she’ll wake up one morn­ing to find him in her bed in place of Apollo, and other forms of mag­i­cal think­ing. When she con­fesses to Wife One the be­lief that it’s her job to “act self­lessly and make sac­ri­fices for him,” Wife One replies acutely, “Who are we talk­ing about.”

But per­haps “you” has done some­thing un­wit­tingly gen­er­ous in the end, leav­ing N with this huge warm body in her bed, “the size of a man and stretched out with his head on his own pil­low.” It’s not long be­fore she’s re­fer­ring to the two of them as “we” (“We like cold weather. We like the city in win­ter”), along with all the other an­noy­ing code­pen­dent cou­ples. She reads Apollo po­etry (Rilke) and trims his nails, and cuts evenings short to rush home to his com­pany. Mean­while she’s get­ting fi­nal no­tices from her build­ing’s man­age­ment of­fice and her friends are start­ing to avoid her, fear­ful that she’ll be evicted and show up on their doorsteps with a suit­case and Apollo. One asks if she has con­sid­ered a ther­a­pist. When she says she’s skep­ti­cal about pet shrinks, he replies, “That’s not what I meant.” J.R. Ack­er­ley cov­ered sim­i­lar ter­ri­tory in My Dog Tulip, a book N takes as a touch­stone de­spite find­ing it ap­pallingly misog­y­nist on sec­ond read­ing. At least she spares us Ack­er­ley’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with doggy phys­i­cal­ity: we get far less on Apollo’s bow­els and no in­ter­species sex­ual did­dling—thank­fully this is love of a more spir­i­tual va­ri­ety. No fin­gers en­ter an­i­mal ori­fices. (Not a “dog per­son” my­self, I think it will be a long time be­fore I get over the im­age of the ho­mo­sex­ual bach­e­lor Ack­er­ley man­u­ally lu­bri­cat­ing the fe­male Tulip in prepa­ra­tion for her de­flow­er­ing, an event in which he seemed pe­cu­liarly in­vested.)

My Dog Tulip was a thor­oughly queer book, in all the best senses. So is The Friend. It reimag­ines cou­ple­dom and the in­ti­ma­cies pos­si­ble be­tween sen­tient crea­tures. N pro­fesses to be un­set­tled when an­other woman on the street calls Apollo “sexy,” declar­ing her­self jeal­ous of N, but it’s not as though she’s obliv­i­ous to the erotics in their re­la­tion­ship. “You” had been ap­palled that Ack­er­ley’s most sig­nif­i­cant re­la­tion­ship was with a dog, while N saw Ack­er­ley as hav­ing achieved “the kind of mu­tual un­con­di­tional love that ev­ery­one craves but most peo­ple never know.” She won­ders at one point if she’s taken a dog as a hus­band, but the an­swer is ob­vi­ous—she fre­quently sounds like a be­sot­ted new­ly­wed, no less so as Apollo ages, when his beauty still reg­u­larly draws gasps. “To think what he was like in his prime,” she muses, feel­ing cheated not to have known him as a puppy, as one some­times hears peo­ple voice ret­ro­spec­tive jeal­ousy about a spouse ac­quired in mid­dle age. How un­fair that some­one else got to paw them in their dewy youth!

Given the ful­some ado­ra­tion, it’s cu­ri­ous when N re­marks, rather clin­i­cally, of Ack­er­ley’s trans­fer­ence with Tulip that clearly he’d chan­neled all his hu­man pain and sex­ual frus­tra­tions through his dog. Et tu, N? Per­haps we’re all equal parts self-ob­tuse­ness and self-acu­ity, bet­ter di­ag­nos­ti­cians of oth­ers than of our­selves. N’s self­acu­ity re­turns on the sub­ject of pet own­ers’ pro­jec­tions, as when she re­marks that want­ing to talk to our dogs is a fan­tasy—if they could tell us who they were, that would ruin ev­ery­thing. We feel pity for suf­fer­ing an­i­mals be­cause they evoke self-pity for our own help­less­ness at ear­lier mo­ments in our lives, she else­where re­flects. Does she mean, I won­dered, that our re­la­tions with an­i­mals are es­sen­tially nar­cis­sis­tic, that we love them be­cause we see our­selves through their eyes? When she rem­i­nisces about Apollo in­hal­ing ev­ery inch of her, search­ing for data about who she is, does she love him be­cause his cu­rios­ity about her has awo­ken her love for her­self? Thus cur­ing her? If it’s not clear from these ques­tions, Nunez has done some­thing sub­tle and rather odd here, cre­at­ing a nar­ra­tor about whom the reader of­ten feels she knows more than the nar­ra­tor does about her­self. At the same time, I was never en­tirely sure whether N’s un­re­li­a­bil­ity was wholly due to Nunez’s art­ful­ness, or whether she’d so thor­oughly im­mersed her­self in this char­ac­ter that N’s blind spots are her own. I don’t re­call pre­vi­ously puz­zling in quite the same way about whether it was a char­ac­ter or an au­thor at the reins—it’s usu­ally clear when a char­ac­ter’s lim­i­ta­tions are the au­thor’s or, con­versely, when an au­thor is “writ­ing down” to a char­ac­ter, feel­ing her­self su­pe­rior in brains and savvy to her cre­ation. When N says to her­self late in the book, re­gard­ing “you,” “I never knew if I ac­tu­ally loved him,” I wanted to shake her and say: Do you re­ally not re­call the ex­tent to which you trans­formed your apart­ment into a one-bed­room sut­tee fol­low­ing his death? That you’ve spent an en­tire book ob­sess­ing about him? Is Nunez clu­ing us in to the lim­its of N’s self-un­der­stand­ing, or is she the one I should be shak­ing?

Then there are the many tipoffs along the way that “you”—known to us only through N’s el­lip­ti­cal and pos­si­bly un­de­pend­able ac­count—was prob­a­bly not the great friend or wise or­a­cle she’s con­vinced her­self he was. When the book briefly re­vives him—es­say­ing a dif­fer­ent plot line in which he didn’t suc­ceed in killing him­self but was found and re­vived—it turns out that he’s fu­ri­ous at her for writ­ing about him, de­spite all those high-flown max­ims about writ­ing as a free­dom to be seized. “Right now I can tell you it feels like a be­trayal,” he spits an­grily. Writ­ing about him when he’s at the low­est mo­ment of his life was “down­right sleazy.” Alive, he’s a far less co­op­er­a­tive sub­ject—in fact he’s charm­less and whiny.

Dead or alive, it’s hard not to con­clude that of the two, Apollo was the bet­ter friend, the bet­ter man. Gen­er­ally I have pa­tience for nar­cis­sis­tic male writ­ers, but “you” wore on even me. I found my­self a lit­tle in­dig­nant at him on N’s be­half, for fuck­ing her once, claim­ing own­er­ship like a dog mark­ing its ter­ri­tory, then leav­ing her in a con­ve­niently pro­tracted state of wor­ship­ful de­vo­tion. It says some­thing about the per­sua­sive charms of this small book that you’re left want­ing to de­fend an un­named nar­ra­tor from a sui­ci­dal ego­ma­niac who may not even be dead.

The Friend is a de­li­cious read, but also a wrench­ing one. All per­fect friend­ships even­tu­ally come to an end, and less-than-per­fect ones too: this is a book about two deaths. And about flawed loves, and the lone­li­ness we seek flawed love to evade, and the books we turn to when that doesn’t suf­fice ei­ther. If an air of loss haunts the scene, of bet­ter days gone by (bet­ter days for writ­ers cer­tainly), it’s also a trib­ute to lit­er­a­ture—the most en­dur­ing re­la­tion­ships in this book are with other books. If you love some­one who doesn’t love you back, dis­ap­points or dies, is bad in bed or a dif­fer­ent species, there are still the con­so­la­tions of print. That so­lace—forged across cen­turies, lan­guages, souls—is the clos­est thing to re­quited love Nunez of­fers. Per­haps more per­fect than even the love of a big dog.

As for big nar­cis­sists—well, they con­tinue to at­tract their loy­al­ists.

Si­grid Nunez, 2011; pho­to­graph by Mar­ion Et­tlinger

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.