Reviewed: Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through, Virago
I started reading Sigrid Nunez’s latest book, What Are You Going Through, two weeks after having spent five days in the neurology ward at Monash Hospital, sharing the room with two women in their fifties who had been diagnosed with cancer. One of them, a thin woman with short grey hair whose name I didn’t write down in my journal, had a spinal tumour removed and was recuperating before starting radiotherapy. She called her daughter every day to tell her not to bring her granddaughter, so as to avoid potential exposure to COVID-19. This also meant she couldn’t see her daughter, but she seemed content with her decision.
My other ‘roommate’ was named Melanie, a woman with long ash-blond hair. She received no calls or visits, not even on the day of her surgery. Most days, she either chatted with us or tried to get the attention of the busy nurses. The last I heard of her was that she had been transferred to a different ward to recuperate from her surgery. To this day, something she said still echoes in my mind: ‘My friends and family gave me this expensive toiletry set, it even comes with a new brush, but I can’t understand why they waited until I was sick to give me something this beautiful. Look at the bag.’ As I was reading Nunez’s novel, Melanie’s words gained new significance.
Set in 2017, What Are You Going Through has a simple plot: a middle-aged woman who is dying of cancer asks an old friend to keep her company during her last days. She also requests that her friend assist her in ending her life later, as she wants to have a ‘good death’: ‘… free of pain, at least not convulsing in agony. Going out with poise, with a little dignity. Clean and dry.’ She does not want to be alone ‘in case something goes wrong’.
During their time together, the unnamed protagonist reflects on the conversations she has with other people, such as an Airbnb owner, her ex-husband and a rescued stray cat: ‘she is my second mother, said the beautiful bourbon-eyes silver-furred cat. He told many stories that night—he was a real Scheherazade, that cat—but this is the only one I remembered in the morning.’ Among these, there are reports of the experiences her sick friend describes, giving the reader a picture of what ageing, illness and loneliness look like for a cohort of women, which includes another cancer patient, the sick friend’s daughter and a woman in her eighties who lives alone.
This is not the first time Nunez has explored friendship and grief. What Are You Going Through continues to examine friendship in the same way as For Rouenna (2001), a novel that follows the rekindled friendship between a writer and a combat nurse in Vietnam who is seeking help to write her story, and The Last of Her Kind (2005), which charts the friendship between two women from different socioeconomic backgrounds after they are introduced to one another at Barnard College in the late 1960s.
The author has also said that What Are You Going Through is, in a way, a continuation of her award-winning novel The Friend (2018), which tells the story of yet another unnamed woman who takes care of a friend’s Great Dane, left behind after he commits suicide, and how this relationship with the dog helps her continue on. The publication of this book skyrocketed Nunez’s career as a literary writer after decades of writing award-winning novels, short stories and essays that were erroneously and unjustifiably classified as ‘women’s fiction’. In 2006 Elizabeth Benedict wrote in the New York Times about The Last of Her Kind: ‘This story of a complicated friendship is likely to strike deep chords with readers, especially women, who were at an impressionable age during the 1960s and 1970s. And among those who share the narrator’s taste in jokes.’
Nunez has said that she seesc onnections between all her books; in What Are You Going Through we notice again an exploration of female friendship and how it evolves over time. It also hints at how these relationships could be more important than spousal or family relationships as we age. ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard’, begins one of the twentieth century’s most famous novels. Often this comes to mind when I hear people talk about their unhappy families. But what makes Nunez’s book remarkable lies not in the portrayal and evolution of a friendship between two women but in the meaning of the title itself. When I shared the Monash Hospital room with the two women, we were subjected to a parade of disengaged nurses and doctors asking us the same questions over and over: ‘What’s your name? What day is it today? Do you know where you are? Can you wiggle your toes? Can you squeeze my hand?’
However, in the time I was there, no-one asked us what I think is the fundamental question, at least not while the three of us were in the same room, nor as I was wheeled back and forth between the radiology area and the room. The words ‘what are you going through?’ were left unspoken, even if we were all going through illness and pain. Yet this question lies at the core of life and death scenarios—the French philosopher Simone Weil ponders whether showing love to others is as simple as being able to utter precisely that question. Nunez, who is well acquainted with Weil’s writing, borrowed the title from a sentence in Weil’s Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God (1942):
The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him, ‘What are you going through?’ It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labelled ‘unfortunate,’ but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction.
But as the narrator in What Are You Going Through points out, Weil’s question in the original French sounds quite different: ‘Quel est ton tourment?’—what is your torment?
Nunez interweaves contemporary concerns and intimate tribulations by making her main character the link between multiple women and, thus, their implicit answer to the question. This narrator gives voice to the frustrations and suffering of a chorus of seemingly unrelated characters in a world facing global warming, the onset of a pandemic, and the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election. In her retellings, her voice could sometimes be considered clinical, as it shows no mercy in her description of ageing—it is ultimately a process that can be cruel for many women: ‘Crazy lady. Talk about your biggest fear. Crazy old lady with her bags on a park bench. Blessing things, cursing things. That kind of a woman’s story.’
This brings to mind what Helen H. Bacon says about the chorus in classical Greek drama. In The Chorus in Greek Life and Drama (1994), she suggests that the chorus was an ‘integral part of the action’ and ‘not a source of interludes and peripheral commentary’. Viewed like this, it is the chorus that delivers a wider and more powerful picture of the story. In What Are You Going Through, it is the women’s voices we hear through the main narrator that brings the book together—they are not mere commentary, they form the backbone of the book; without them, the relationship between the protagonist and her friend could pass for a dark episode of Golden Girls. ‘I know I shouldn’t laugh,’ she said, ‘but it does sound a little like a sitcom, Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia.’
According to Bacon, the chorus also represents the wider community, and their participation allows for stronger release of emotions as they express them together in a single voice. Indeed, what is more powerful than a group of people chanting their story at the same time, as one? In Nunez’s chorus, women who are dealing with grief, loss and ageing act as the emotive drive to the novel, especially as we grow to see how these seemingly disparate stories affect the protagonist as she recounts them: ‘Soon it will be the end, this fairy tale. This saddest time that has also been one of the happiest times in my life will pass. And I will be alone.’
More and more voices are added to this ‘chorus’ as the book unfolds. There is a woman to whom age hasn’t been kind: ‘In middle age she is toned but overweight, her precise features have blurred, the dazzle is gone. No-one is more aware of this than she is’; a daughter whose father refuses to acknowledge her pain after the death of her mother: ‘All this time, and it’s still going on, still impacting my life every day. My therapist says it has to be dealt with.’ To this the dad replies: ‘I thought the service went well. What did you think of the service?’; and a cancer patient who is gaslighted in a support group after sharing that her husband of more than 40 years is happy with her gloomy prognosis: ‘The woman was mistaken. Surely the children—who knew their own father, after all—were right and the woman, who in their opinion must be completely wrong, should listen to them.’
This last example highlights the underlying questions in What Are You Going Through: are we truly listening to others’ stories, or are we simply pretending to listen when faced with loneliness, self-doubt, sadness and ageing?
After visiting her friend at the hospital and talking about a former co-worker who had a scandalous affair, the protagonist reminisces about the first time she saw Jesus, You Know, a documentary that sees six Austrian Catholics talk to God in a church, confessing their concerns, fears and desires. She ponders what this confessional cinematic experiment might mean for those who prayed and those who watched. She suggests that the director wanted to question the definition of a prayer and whether God is listening, although she leaves the cinema ‘thinking of the popular inspirational command: Be kind, because everyone you meet is going through a struggle.’ Her comments on the film highlight the essential question of the book, which echoes Weil’s: what happens when you confess what torments you; what happens when we witness humans at their most vulnerable? The answer may lie in the chorus. •
Gabriella Munoz is an award-winning bilingual writer and editor living in Melbourne. Her fiction, poetry and essays have been published in Australia and internationally.