[Book Review] What Are You Going Through? by Sigrid Nunez

A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life: an ex she runs into by chance at a public forum, an Airbnb owner unsure how to interact with her guests, a stranger who seeks help comforting his elderly mother, a friend of her youth now hospitalized with terminal cancer.

The vibe of this book is reminiscent of stream of consciousness in that there isn’t a solid plot throughout the novel; rather, it’s more of an overarching theme of grief and stagnation and this oppressive feeling that there is a crisis at hand yet you have no idea how to handle the crisis, let alone identify and clearly articulate the crisis. The conversations the unnamed narrator has with various other people in the book are all relayed to the reader in a secondhand manner, which gave the book a gossipy tone that I don’t think the author intended. Here’s an example:

It was all over, he said. He quoted another writer, translating from the French: Before man, the forest; after him, the desert. Whatever must be done to forestall catastrophe, whatever actions or sacrifices, it was now clear that humankind lacked the will, the collective will, to undertake them. To any intelligent alien, he said, we would appear to be in the grip of a death wish.

What Are You Going Through?

While the writing isn’t exactly off putting, I struggled with rationalizing why the majority of the novel is written in this fashion. There are sections of true dialogue, in which the characters are speaking to each other in real time with the use of actual dialogue quotes rather than “he said” “she said” summaries from the narrator, yet they are sparse and occur mostly at the end. This structure likely has some clear logic to it, yet I’m not confident enough to attempt to identify that logic. That said, the style did not completely turn me off to the novel. It was a narrative quirk that I soon accepted, and overall I really enjoyed the book.

Is this book depressing? Goodness, yes. Does a very cynical professor bent on proclaiming the end of the world to as many people as he can appear frequently to espouse his morbid dystopian predictions? Yes, he does. Is the narrator’s friend dying of cancer in a painfully realistic manner? Yes! And we need this. We need a slightly humorous, slightly satirical but still honest depiction of what it’s like to go through cancer largely alone. This book is far from The Fault in Our Stars, but I loved that because The Fault in Our Stars is, at the end of the day, a romanticized version of cancer. (Yes, I know John Green knew someone with cancer, and the book was inspired/based on that experience, but John Green is also a hopeless romantic and he can’t help but imbue his writing with that quality. It’s why we love him.) What Are You Going Through?, in contrast, is almost like the cynical, mature adult version of Green’s novel, and I am here for it.

PUBLICATION DEETS: Riverhead, September 8, 2020, 224 pages

Category: literary fiction

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