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I wasn't going to write about Sigrid Nunez' The Friend (Riverhead, $25).

It's been out for nearly a year, published in February. Last month it won the National Book Award. So a lot of the potential readers are already familiar with the book. Some of you have read it, a lot more probably already have it on your radar. I prefer to use this space to guide you to something you might not otherwise know about.

Besides, I'm skeptical of prize winners. A lot of books get attention for reasons that have little to do with how well-written or affecting they are. So I wasn't sure I was even going to read Nunez's book-- especially not after I heard about it.

It's about a writer, the narrator, who, after her best friend commits suicide, takes his adult Great Dane into her 500-square-foot Manhattan apartment. Into her life.

This feels close to home. I have taken in pets. I have had friends take their own lives. I know approximately how long Great Danes live. It is not difficult to imagine how such a story might play out. I doubt I would have gone very far past the first few pages had the narrator not assured me, "Nothing bad happens to the dog."

But even as I read bravely on, I thought about all the unreliable narrators encountered in my time. And about the realities of our lives here in this dimension. Something bad always happens to the dog.

So now I've read the book. It is, in many ways, challenging. It discusses British critic J.R. Ackerley's 1956 memoir My Dog Tulip, which was made -- by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger -- into a splendid animated movie in 2009. It is a lovely and deeply misanthropic work. It also includes a discussion of the 2014 Hungarian film White God, about a mixed-breed who, cast out by an owner unwilling to pay a city tax on non-purebred dogs, leads an urban canine pack in revolt against their oppressing humans. I've shown and discussed both of these films to classes over the years.

Nunez -- or rather her unnamed narrator -- also examines Lilya 4-ever, a Swedish-Danish film based on the true story of a girl in the Soviet Union whose mother abandoned her to live in the United States. I've thought of showing that film to my class but haven't because it is too sad.

There is a bit on Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, and about how that book is now dismissed by Nunez writing that students "do not feel that Rilke is speaking to them. ... They say it's a lie that writing is a religion requiring the devotion of a priest. They say it's ridiculous."

She muses on W.H. Auden coming to regret the line, "We must love one another or die" in his poem "September 1, 1939." He revised it: "We must love one another and die." Then he renounced the poem.

This is what the book, which addresses her dead friend, is like, a series of little observations, like a journal into which our hyper-literate narrator jots her thoughts. She carries a theme for a few paragraphs, puts it down and picks up another.

The Friend will be a tough read for many people; I cannot imagine reading it if I were alone or unmoored in the world. It is about grief and depression and the sure knowledge that, no matter what your dog thinks of you, you are no god, and there are forces in the world from which you can offer no protection or assurance.

It is a book about writing, and the absurdity of continuing to write in a world where writing is continually being devalued and your privilege -- whatever you might take that to be -- is proscriptive. At the memorial service for her late friend, the narrator overhears someone joking that he is now officially "a Dead White Male."

He was that to the hilt -- a character out of Cheever or Updike, or more on point, a strongly heterosexual Allan Bloom, forever railing against the correctness of the culture, calling his female students "dear" and suggesting they sleep with him even after it's become clear that they cannot take him seriously as a lover. She compares him to David Lurie, protagonist of J.M. Coetzee's 1999 novel Disgrace. Lurie is a South African English professor who loses everything after he seduces -- or rapes -- one of his most vulnerable students:

"You were one of several Lurian friends I've known: reckless priapic men risking careers, livelihoods, marriages -- everything. (As to why, the stakes being what they are, the only explanation I've ever been able to come up with is: because that's how men are.)"

I've known men like that. I've known women like the narrator. She is not a dog person, but she falls in love with this 180-pound beast named Apollo. She can read to him. He fetches her book. He sleeps in her bed.

Nothing bad happens to the dog.

"The Friend" by Sigrid Nunez 2018
Sigrid Nunez

Style on 12/09/2018

Print Headline: Fetch The Friend, read about writing


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