Subscriber OnlyBooks

Sigrid Nunez: ‘When my narrator is giving her thoughts, those essayistic parts are always completely identified with me’

It’s been a difficult few years for us all, that’s for sure. A big part of that recent difficulty informs Nunez’s new novel The Vulnerables

If cheerful pessimism is a thing, then Sigrid Nunez might be a leading ambassador. The American novelist, speaking to me via Zoom from her home in Manhattan, is bright and friendly in conversation, and often laughs, but she doesn’t waste time in polite platitudes. “Well I don’t like it any more!” she says when I ask, in small-talk terms, what she likes about living in New York City. “I haven’t liked it for a long time. [But] it’s home. I think I would be happier in a small town. It’s become such a noisy, crowded, chaotic, dirty place. And maybe the most difficult thing is that the gap between the extremely wealthy and what’s on offer for them, and the homeless, it’s just a lot to be living in the midst of.”

Well, it’s been a difficult few years for us all, that’s for sure. A big part of that recent difficulty informs Nunez’s new novel The Vulnerables, which she’s here to talk about today. It’s a pandemic novel, or more accurately a post-pandemic novel: less about the virus itself than the conditions that the virus enabled: solitude, reflection, the unexpected bringing together and pulling apart of people. The title refers to the Covid-19 category the ageing narrator is placed in by a young friend. “You’re a vulnerable.”

At one point in the novel, the narrator – a writer who sounds a lot like Nunez – reflects on the predictability of novelists in dark times wanting to write about the dark times, and comments that “I’ve now gone and done it myself”. Does this mean she had mixed feelings about writing a pandemic novel? (After all, Nunez had already written a novel, Salvation City (2010), about a flu pandemic.)

“I did,” she says firmly. “Because when the pandemic was still young, Tom Bissell wrote an article that everyone read, which said, ‘A lot of you writers out there are going to be thinking about writing your pandemic novel – and I’m saying, don’t!’ But I felt I didn’t have a choice because I wanted to write about what’s happening now. And I agree with [novelist] Michael Cunningham that it seems impossible to write about now, or the recent past, without writing about the pandemic. But I did feel some anxiety about it, yeah.”


Although Nunez has been publishing fiction for three decades, until recently she was little read in this country and most of her novels weren’t published here until her breakout novel, The Friend, in 2018. That book, about a woman taking on a friend’s dog after the friend’s suicide, won the National Book Award for Fiction in the US and was shortlisted here for the International Dublin Literary Award in 2020. What made The Friend resonate with people so much?

“It’s interesting,” she says. “[I was] with a friend, the wonderful writer Jeffrey Eugenides, we were colleagues at Princeton [University, New Jersey]. I asked him what he was working on, and I said I was working on this, and I mentioned the dog. He said, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a huge success, Sigrid.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because of the dog. I’m telling you!’ He hadn’t read it or anything. So I think that did have a lot to do with it. It could just as easily have gone the other way.”

As well as its canine appeal (“Please say nothing bad happens to the dog!” goes one line), The Friend was appealing because of its clear, simple style: nutritious without being stodgy, intimate with the reader, reading as much like a memoir or essay as a novel. She took the same stylistic approach in her next novel What Are You Going Through (about a friend’s terminal cancer - maybe now we see where the pessimism comes from), and again in The Vulnerables.

More than the other two, The Vulnerables reads like a book of memory. Nunez, who was born in 1951, opens with a quote from Gabriel García Márquez: “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” Is this effect of memory something that becomes more apparent with age?

“I think it is,” she says. “And the truth is that those memories are not accurate. What happens is you go through life, and all that time you’re recording these memories, and you’re going over them in your mind as life goes on. And they keep changing. It’s almost like you’re writing the novel of your life. You arrange things just like a novelist does. It’s not necessarily accurate, but it’s still your memory, it’s still who you are.”

And given that the narrators sound a lot like Nunez, yet the books are evidently fiction – unless, like the narrator in The Vulnerables, Nunez really did flat-sit through the pandemic with a parrot and a millennial college drop-out – is she trying to be playful with the reader over what’s real and what isn’t?

“What I don’t want to be is coy. If you’re going to write a novel and make the narrator someone who is your age, your gender, your profession, you really don’t have any business complaining when they say, ‘oh, could this possibly be you?’” She laughs. “I think of the books as hybrids, because there is so much fiction in [them]. However, when my narrator is giving her thoughts, those essayistic parts are always completely identified with me.”

With a parrot in this book and a dog in The Friend, we assume that Nunez herself values the company of animals. “I do, but I don’t have any right now. My last pets were two cats, and when they died, I just haven’t been able to replace them. But I’ve always had a passion for animals and I wish I’d written about them earlier. Because it’s your passions you should be writing about.

“And the other day I remembered when I was in my twenties I was having a really hard time and I was with this man. He said it was because I was trying to be a writer and failing left and right. And he said, ‘You’re doing the wrong thing. You should have done something with animals.’ And I was so indignant because he was trying to discourage my writing. And just the other day I thought, he was right! He was right, I should have done something.”

The other thing that the pandemic enabled, and which features in The Vulnerables, was conversations with old friends that acquired additional depth, because they were the last to be had for some time – and in some cases, at all. There are many such discussions in the book between the narrator and her friends, who enjoy setting the crooked world to right. One memorable scene has them reflecting on how “when men appear in fiction now it’s usually to be criticised or denounced for something. The one thing you’re never prepared to hear is that the men will do the right thing.” And further, “no man today would ever attempt to create an Emma Bovary or an Anna Karenina”, or similarly flawed and complex heroines. Why does Nunez think this is?

“Because there’s so much anxiety. The culture has said to some extent that it’s not appropriate, it might be permissible but it’s not appropriate for men to be writing these female characters now.” People would call it, she says, “a negative portrayal of womanhood”.

This has been a time when we have to face the fact of how completely irrational humans are. Someone threw bleach at a woman who was coming home from hospital. It was very frightening

Nunez grew up in an immigrant housing project on Staten Island, in what she calls “a strange household”. Her mother was German and her father Chinese-Panamanian, so “my parents didn’t have a common language. My mother was a German war bride. It was a very tense, unhappy marriage. My father, his English wasn’t good, he was in a world of his own. He was like this foreigner in the family. It was an unhappy household. [My mother] was very unhappy as a post-second World War German in the victors’ nation.”

We’re back to cheerful pessimism, which features most obviously in the book when the narrator says that “we are now in a world that is defined by continuous disaster”. How, she wonders, did we end up “living in a time so perverse, among so many people so deranged, that, faced with a choice between killing the virus and killing Dr Fauci, they’d kill Dr Fauci”?

“It’s one of the most shocking things about our time,” she says now, “that that is not an exaggeration. This has been a time when we have to face the fact of how completely irrational humans are. Someone threw bleach at a woman who was coming home from hospital. It was very frightening.” Since then, she suggests, not much has got better. “The murder of George Floyd, the chaos of the election year, and then the war in Ukraine, and now the Middle East. It feels like we’re reeling towards total chaos.”

Dare I ask, then, about the next election year, which is now upon us? “The most important thing,” she says, “is that Trump has a very good chance of winning. And that will be absolutely catastrophic. [I feel like] I’m living in one of those times that I used to see mostly on movies or on television.” It is perhaps a common experience, and it has been a difficult few years. Still, while it may not work for Nunez, for anyone else one way to feel more cheerful than pessimistic for a while is to read a good book. I recommend The Vulnerables.