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Pondering death and intimacy in ‘What Are You Going Through’

Sigrid Nunez
Sigrid NunezNancy Crampton

Sigrid Nunez’s new novel opens with an epigraph by Simone Weil that is also the source of the book’s title: “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him, ‘What are you going through?’” This question, returned to throughout the novel (in English and French) both explicitly and implicitly, guides the beautifully layered narrative that unfolds.

Throughout Part One, which begins with “I went to hear a man give a talk,” the narrator details multiple encounters with characters who remain nameless. This conversational tone, coupled with quick pacing, make it easy to be drawn in. Though the man takes on increasing significance as the novel progresses, what he is called is never revealed. Nor are any other characters, including the narrator and her friend who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, ever named.


It is quite a time to be reading a book about facing mortality, and there are other eerie echoes of our current situation. The man’s talk outlines the myriad ways in which humans are doomed, including “The inevitable next great flu pandemic, for which we are, just as inevitably, unprepared,” Its prescience is undeniable, heightening too the significance of the need to ask how fully we love our neighbors. Later, when the narrator muses, “Othered. Who is more so than the dying?” it is hard not to think of daily death tolls from around the globe.

Interspersed throughout “What Are You Going Through” are paraphrased quotes and flashes of commentary on the work of thinkers including Patricia Highsmith, John Waters, Ingeborg Bachmann, D. H. Lawrence, Henry James, John Singer Sargent, John Cheever, William Faulkner, and Graham Greene. With every story, readers remove a matryoshka head to reveal another, even more brightly painted one, underneath. Each layer embodies the notion that what is most personal is most universal. There is even a chapter that is partially narrated, or imagined to be, by a cat.


It can be disorienting that all of the stories are filtered through the voice of the narrator, with quotation marks rarely employed. This heightens the powerful way that cycles — of love, and death, and everything in between — propel the narrative. Readers are left to think about their own stories and how they might be retold by others. Like transparencies used on old overhead projectors, the narrator’s retellings bring her points into relief. Stacked all together, the parts that differ are clearly revealed.

At points, readers’ attention to any given sub-story may waver, guided by their own proclivities and lived experiences. This may also be influenced by the ways the stories bleed together, with narrator as raconteur. At the same time, what is left untold comes to define the story just as much as the moments where we are given a little too much of the mundane. “Untold is a good word,” Nunez writes. “Meaning, of course, not recounted or narrated. But also, too much or too many to say.”

In Part Two, a more linear narrative takes shape centered around the narrator and her dying friend. Much like Nunez’s description of the Sargent painting, it is “a coy mix of the erotic and the austere.” Proximity and mortality come together to birth moments of quiet intimacy, highlighting the synchronicity that can develop between two people under extraordinary circumstances, a “new intimacy that [makes] secrets and lies intolerable.”


In the third and shortest part of the novel, the narrator muses on the limits of language itself, even among those who speak the same tongue: “Each of us languaging on our own, our meaning clear to ourselves but to nobody else.” All of the characters in the book face mortality in their own ways. In one of the more poignant moments of reflection, the narrator muses on the very full lives that various friends’ parents had lived before becoming parents. Looking back, she regrets how little she cared to ask them about those lives, caught up instead in the everyday dramas of teen life.

In the end, Nunez leaves some of the reader’s biggest questions unanswered. What matters, as with Weil’s question that opens the book, is the asking. In doing so, meaning is made. The narrator, and in turn the reader, are transformed. To return to the man’s talk at the outset, “The only moral, meaningful course for a civilization facing its own end: To learn how to ask forgiveness and to atone in some tiny measure for the devastating harm we had done to our human family and to our fellow creatures and to the beautiful earth. To love and forgive one another as best we could. And to learn how to say goodbye.”


By Sigrid Nunez

Riverhead, 224 pp., $26

Anri Wheeler is a writer and antiracist educator who directs the Equity and Inclusion Fellows program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.