Review: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

[Note: I wrote this review of The Friend by Sigrid Nunez for The East Bay Review, Oakland’s quarterly literary journal. As The East Bay Review is temporarily offline due to technical issues, I’m posting it here until The East Bay Review’s triumphant return.]
Published February 2018 by Riverhead Books
$25.00 Hardcover ISBN: 978-0735219441

The Friend tells the story of an unnamed writer who inherits her best friend’s Great Dane after her friend has committed suicide, but it covers a lot more ground than that. The book’s triple epigraph should warn readers of The Friend’s complicated nature. The first is by Natalia Ginzburg, about the futility of “consoling yourself for your grief by writing;” the second is about a dog in Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Tinderbox;” and the third is from Nicholas Baker in the Paris Review: “The question of any novel is really trying to answer is, Is life worth living?”

These lines run the length of The Friend, alongside musings on trauma and abuse; muteness, blindness, and disability; the changing literary world; and sexual harassment and assault.

The Friend is audacious, often thorny writing. Addressed as an elegy to the narrator’s womanizing friend, the novel doesn’t shy away from his adulterous ways, his affairs with students, his confusion and anger with the changing status of sexuality in the classroom. It’s hard not to wonder if author Sigrid Nunez was the victim of unfortunate timing, with growing conversations about sexual harassment in academia and the #MeToo movement bringing this element of her title character into awkward focus.

But Nunez engages intensely with the nameless friend’s faults, refusing to minimize his misogyny or to condemn him for it, showing the narrator struggling with his behavior before and after his death. Readers fed up with stories of straight white men who are beloved despite their dehumanizing treatment of the women in their lives may decide to skip this novel, and have my blessing. Those who proceed anyway will find their concerns addressed explicitly in the book: in the first chapter, at the friend’s funeral, the narrator overhears an attendee noting “Now he’s officially a dead white male.”

This is how Nunez approaches each question The Friend raises. On whether writing can or should be therapeutic, she cites Virginia Woolf’s assertion that in writing about her mother “I did for myself what psychoanalysts do for their patients,” and Isak Dinesen’s belief that writing could “make any sorrow bearable,” but also Natalia Ginzburg’s warning against seeking consolation in writing, and Toni Morrison’s statement that basing characters on real people is “an infringement of copyright.” The Friend is expansive, guiding readers in a thousand directions instead of one, collecting anecdotes and literary riffs on its central themes without curating these into a single argument, leaving loose ends and self-contradiction on display for the reader to consider and explore.

Through these quotes, arguments, and musings runs the story of a woman living in a very small apartment with a very large, bereaved dog. Apollo the Great Dane is the beating heart inside The Friend’s more abstract work; through his misbehavior—when brought home, he immediately lays across the narrator’s bed, and later eats her Knausgard hardcover—and his baser needs, he brings fresh air and humor into the story. Although she is loath to discuss her own sadness, the narrator’s descriptions of Apollo’s grief and her growing attachment to the dog open the door to a new language of loss, a space in which to consider the absent man through the present dog.

By its end, The Friend rewards readers with tenderness and specificity that is all the richer for being found alongside abstraction. Challenging, elegant, and expansive, The Friend delivers a stunning portrayal of grief, joy, and friendship that is completely unique.

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