Sigrid Nunez's new novel, The Friend, which just won the National Book Award for Fiction, is one of the most compelling and beautiful novels I've ever read. It reads like a memoir and perhaps, in its way, it is. The first-person narrator, a writer/teacher, loses her dear friend/former lover/mentor/professor to suicide, and the book is addressed to him, an unnamed "you." The friend leaves her his dog---an enormous, sweet Great Dane named Apollo, who becomes her savior and soulmate. The book is a love letter to the friendships that form between teachers and students, men and women, humans and dogs. It is also a meditation on what it's like to be a working writer battling grief and contemplating the lure of suicidal ideation in 2018:
"Stevie Smith calling Death the only god who must come when he's called tickled you pink, as did the various ways people have said that were it not for suicide they could not go on. Walking with Samuel Beckett one fine spring morning, a friend of his asked, Doesn't a day like this make you glad to be alive? I wouldn't go as far as that Beckett said."
Nunez was briefly my professor in grad school and once wrote on the top of a writing exercise, "Be careful of showing too much anger." The narrator in this novel has much to be angry about---she lives in a small apartment and risks being evicted for having a dog---and one that poops in the house. "Jesus, it smells like a stable, said a delivery man. Someone else said zoo." She teaches insufferable twentysomethings in an unnamed MFA program, one of whom wants her to take a questionnaire before enrolling in her class and asks in an email, "Are you overconcerned with things like punctuation and grammar?" The narrator sees a therapist, who is occasionally astute. She spends holidays alone. She is celibate.
But she doesn't get angry, just bemused and sometimes amused by the unexpected lessons and blessings her friend's death bring to her in the form of his dog. Her friend left behind a third wife, who doesn't want Apollo, and Apollo has been standing by the front door, keening, as he waits for the friend to return home. When the late friend's wife puts the dog in a kennel, she explains to the narrator why: "You can't explain death to a dog. He didn't understand that Daddy was never coming home again. He waited by the door day and night. For a while he wouldn't even eat. I was afraid he'd starve to death. But the worst part was, ever once in a while, he'd make this noise, this howling, or wailing, or whatever." The wife pauses, and asks the narrator:
"Oh, I know it's a lot to ask, but I really want to get the poor thing out of the damned kennel! If I bring him home, though, I swear he'll spend the rest of his life waiting by the door. And he deserves better than that, don't you think?
Yes, I think, my heart breaking.
You can't explain death.
And love deserves better than that."
Love does deserves better than that. This is ultimately a book about the enduring power of love and how the memories of loving and being loved can help us find new love. The narrator's attachment to her dead friend's memory and his (mostly benign, though also predatory) influence over her, and to the canine friend he left behind, is funny, wry, intense and passionate. This is one of the most intimate books I've ever read, though nothing erotic happens. Her yearnings for her friend, her efforts to understand why he took his own life amount to her own version of canine keening. But you finish the novel concluding the narrator has gained more than she has lost.
If you have a dog, and/or have ever lost someone you miss profoundly, read this book. I couldn't put it down.
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