Would you? Could you?
If a friend of yours had a terminal disease, say advanced cancer, and your friend made the decision to end her life using medicines designed for such purposes, and your friend asked you to be close when it happened, not to assist or intervene or anything like that, but simply (or complexly) to be a witness to her decision, would you do it? Could you do it? That’s the nucleus of Sigrid Nunez’s novel What Are You Going Through. There are other stories orbiting in her novel, but that one’s at the center.
So, would you? Could you?
The title of the book is drawn from a quote by Simon Weil—
The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him, “What are you going through?”
That quote alone is worth the price of admission, but don’t stop there for Nunez is a masterful storyteller. Her writing reminds me of Rachel Cusk, it holds this magnetic conversational effect that draws you, or has at least drawn me, completely in. I keep thinking This is exactly the way people talk. Some books I read and think Who talks like this? I don’t know anybody who talks like this. Sigrid Nunez writes like people talk, which immediately establishes a sense of trust with the storyteller, or has at least for me.
So, would you? Could you?
If you’ve got a ready-made-quick-response to the question then you probably won’t like this book. Well, I take that back. You might (if you give it a chance), for it might cause you the slightest pause and in that pause you just might consider the other, the neighbor, the friend, and what he or she or it (yes, there’s a talking cat in this novel) is going through. Most of the time most of us are thinking about ourselves.
It’s funny because I saw an online ad this week for a new church. But I wouldn’t have known it was for a new church if there hadn’t been accompanying text because the collection of images presented a young couple, virile, fertile, beautiful, great teeth, dressed in soft earth-toned linens standing then stopping then walking through a field of earth-toned somethings (maybe wheat?), but without the accompanying text the images could have been an ad for the newest bougie fragrance or the latest drug to help males with a lack of virility or an urging to hurry hurry snatch up one of the few remaining lots in The Villas of Far-A-Field (or some snazzy name) so you can live alongside other young earth-toned people and be virile and multiply and, well, you get it.
I’ve never met the couple starting the new church. They may be the bee’s knees for all I know. But I do know I didn’t trust them, or at least their presentation because I don’t know anybody like that. Oh I know there are evidently people like that, I see them online most all the time, but I don’t know any of those people. I do realize I’m talking about optics here. I realize that.
I’ve never met Sigrid Nunez (although I did send her an email saying another of her novels—The Friend—was amazing, and thanked her for writing it, and within days she replied back thanking me so much for writing to tell her!). But I trust her, or at least her presentation, because she writes like people talk, people I know, people like me, dare I say people like us. I realize in this instance I’m talking about language where just a paragraph ago I was talking about optics, but I believe optics is a language. So these two similarly rooted experiences bumped into each other this week, one (that didn’t have anything to do with a church) eliciting trust while the other (that did have something to do with a church) causing the opposite response of distrust, or at least it did in me.
Sigrid Nunez’s novel has (and is) causing me to stop and consider what my neighbor is going through. The online ad for the church-starting-young-couple didn’t prod me to think about my neighbor, it just made me think about them.