It’s important to have a healthy amount of self-awareness. Depending on the audience, and perhaps the situation, measuring what we say; how we act and react, may be necessary. Of course, this requires a bit of skill. One must certainly avoid disingenuousness. In matters of great import, it is often the wiser course to speak freely and honestly (notable exceptions include, when your significant other enthusiastically asks for your opinion on their latest hairstyle.) Equally to be avoided is barrelling down on people, like an apoplectic Mr. Emerson, espousing our strongly-held views on topics ranging from radical politics to women who smoke cigarettes. It just isn’t a good look. My point being, keeping oneself in check, in life and in relationships, is a good thing.
Recently, after falling into a rabbit’s hole of self-criticism, I realized that I need to be more present in my friendships. I’ve always been a really good listener; a stellar keeper of secrets and confidences. But friendships, the solid ones at least, require much more. They deserve a level of honesty and attention which I’m not always willing to call forth. I blame it mostly on natural shyness and a steep awkward tilt in emotional situations. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of really great friendships. My closest friends are like family to me. But sometimes I do feel like I could give more of myself. And nothing’s wrong with a little self-improvement. Living in an age of physical distancing and socio-political unrest, now more than ever, we should reach out and check in on each other. Serendipitously, my reading choice thematically mirrors the ideas that I have been contemplating. Therefore, may I present Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel, what are you going through.
If you’ve read Nunez’s previous work, The Friend; an exceptional novel and National Book Award-Winner, what are you going through situates itself as a worthy follow-up. It challenges its reader in ways both subtle and unrefined all the while maintaining a sense of charm and delicate optimism that is quintessentially Nunez. In what are you going through, we find ourselves again in the trusted hands of an observant, nameless, and unassuming narrator. A woman who professionally inhabits a literary world and who personally balances intellect, emotion, and a fair amount of quirk. She is confronted with examples of life in action through the experiences of individuals. An ex-beau, on a book tour, warns shocked audiences of the impending end of civilization due to overpopulation. An elderly neighbor, who with advancing age has become increasingly bitter and paranoid, sequesters herself in a stuffy apartment. And a cat shares a tale of family separation and survival, recounting how he eventually found happiness (but are cats ever truly happy?). The narrator witnesses all of this and takes it in quietly, reserving judgement where and when she can. But it is the question of how we choose to die, that will present the conflict within the story. The narrator’s friend, also a literary-type, has received a dire diagnosis. Refusing to continue aggressive treatment with minimal chance for success, she has decided to end her life, in a peaceful manner, having mysteriously acquired a euthanasia drug. The thing is…she needs someone she trusts to be there when she does it. She surprises the narrator not only with her end-of-life decision but also with her request for the narrator’s assistance in the act, explaining, “I know your feelings won’t be hurt when I say that you weren’t my first choice.” No, “hurt” would be the wrong descriptor. The narrator is understandably anxious and confused. She knows how much her friend has suffered. She can sympathize with her desire to end the pain. But, why oh why, must she be called upon to assist? The limits of their relationship are tested as well as the narrator’s emotional fortitude. With such a dark theme, one might imagine this book to be a bit of a downer. But, Nunez adds these lovely moments of light-heartedness and humor that are true to life. There is sadness and grief, but what must be remembered is that death is a part of life. And just as there is beauty in life entering this world, there can also be moments of beauty as life transitions onward. Exquisite and insightful…a wonderful read.