Last summer, I reviewed former U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s poetry collection “Every Day We Get More Illegal.” I started that review with a frame for thinking about poetry because of how common it is for people to struggle with poetry — understanding it, liking it, even wanting to read it.
I chalk this up to high school English; my senior year English class was exceedingly positive and planted the seeds of my love of reading (and writing) novels, but this, sadly, is the exception. Almost no one I know speaks fondly of their time in English class; they left not loving poetry or stories but with either a lingering fear of breaking grammar rules or a disdain for all things reading and writing. This is how our culture perpetuates an impoverished
appreciation of poetry and literature.
Since Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel, “What Are You Going Through,” has many similarities to poetry, I’ll offer a frame here, too: This is literary fiction, as opposed to what is referred to as “genre” fiction. In my experience, common reactions to literary fiction are “it’s boring,” “where’s the story?” or “I don’t understand the point.”
Neither genre nor literary fiction is better, but approaching literary fiction with genre expectations will likely leave readers unfulfilled. Genre fiction follows specific formulas and is plot-driven; think romance, science fiction or westerns. Literary fiction is about the human condition, is often heavier and has nebulous story lines woven together in ways that preserve ambiguity and refuse to resolve (much like life, no?).
“What Are You Going Through” is a prime example of literary fiction; it is a compendium of reflections that reads almost like nonfiction. The novel is narrated by a woman whose terminally ill friend asks for help dying and becomes a melding of reflections on familiar books, movies and other media and real-life-like lectures.
The book is a collection of tangents, recitations of conversations and interactions the narrator has had throughout her life. Though often depressing and sometimes controversial, this structure was a brilliant way to mirror the distance most of us instinctively try to maintain from topics such as death and dying in our everyday lives.
I imagine others with unpopular opinions would agree, such as when the narrator questions the morality of having children; she points out that such questioning goes far back into human history and has to do with more than the state of the world. Thus, “What Are You Going Through” did what good literature is supposed to do — and is the main reason, I would argue, why we read: Communicate to the reader that they are seen, that they are not alone.
The most haunting line in the whole book, the one that continues to stick with me, was “for maybe the first time in history, young envy the old.” That idea may not be universally true, of course, but the existential angst I’ve carried since I was a child felt thoroughly seen for the first time. This is what literature is supposed to do.
One of the things I love about this book is how real — and, gasp! dislikable! — the main characters (who are women) are. There is an honesty and rawness where circumspect decorum and “empathy” are expected of women. Sections of “What Are You Going Through” are hard to follow unless you slow down and reread them.
It’s unclear if the pacing is intentional, but it nonetheless provides another literary mirror to the act and art of walking a friend through the last however much
of their life they have left.
For example, here’s my version of Nunez’s slow-down-here passages: It wasn’t so much the meandering from conversations had 20 years ago to what the narrator is imagining the two people in the café window are talking about now to a barely related passage in a book the narrator’s dying friend told her about that was confusing; the reader learns how to follow those musings as the book goes on.
What was confusing, more than illuminating, was how another literary device were inconsistently used: quotation marks. As a literary writer myself, I understood Nunez was attempting to blur the lines between who said what to who when and how people remember who said what to who when; in the end, I was not as certain as I would have liked to be regarding what was actually said versus what was thought and to whom by whom.
Nonetheless, if you feel alone in how much you meditate on mortality while in a society that compulsively avoids discussions of any substance about what it means that life ends, “What Are You Going Through” is for you, especially if you don’t want to go through what you are going through alone.
Read more of the May 12-18, 2021 issue.