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Sigrid Nunez’s pandemic novel

The Vulnerables by Sigrid Nunez. Riverhead Books, 256 pages. 2023.

Early in the pandemic, a cartoon by Megan Herbert found its way onto Twitter and eventually the sandwich boards of bookstores. A person stacking books on shelves jokes sardonically to an onlooking reader: “We’ve moved a few things around. Travel books are in the Fantasy section, Politics is in Sci-Fi, and Epidemiology is in Self-Help. Good luck.”

This is the atmosphere in which Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel, The Vulnerables, is set. It begins in New York City, shortly after the onset of Covid-19, with a line borrowed from Virgina Woolf’s The Years: “It was an uncertain spring.” The novel’s narrator—an older, unmarried woman who writes and teaches in Manhattan, like Nunez herself—spends much of her time wandering around the locked-down streets, contemplating all that is hanging in the balance: the state of the world and of reality; her own ability to focus on reading and writing.

Sympathy is no substitute for trust, the lack of which becomes concerning in the context of the pandemic.

Despite its extraordinary circumstances, The Vulnerables proceeds somewhat predictably for a Nunez novel, in that its narrator has recently returned from the funeral of an old friend: a plot point that recalls the suicide of a writing instructor and the narrator’s onetime lover in The Friend, as well as the final days of a cancer-stricken college friend who chooses to die by euthanasia in What Are You Going Through. Like those novels, The Vulnerables also introduces a crucial animal companion: not a Great Dane or a cat, but an acquaintance’s macaw, who was abandoned in the course of pandemic-related complications in a luxury NoMad apartment. Initially entrusted to a friend’s son who has since fled the city for his family home in Vermont, Eureka is now alone and requires several hours of company a day. Enter our narrator, who moves into the apartment indefinitely. She quickly realizes that she needs Eureka’s company as much as the bird needs hers.

This mutual solace is disrupted one day when Eureka’s original custodian returns, unannounced, to stay. An NYU student who sermonizes against owning multiple properties and exotic pets, he strikes the narrator as one of those young people “born to privilege, raised in privilege, and forever railing against privilege,” who nonetheless “[end] up living much the same lifestyle as their parents.” The owner of the apartment insists that he’s a good if troubled person, who probably fled Vermont because he has a difficult relationship with his mother. The narrator vaguely recalls that another friend, a literary agent, had previously turned down said mother’s manuscript, a memoir that detailed “what happens when a child drives a wedge between a happy couple.” “I couldn’t help thinking,” the friend explains, “she’s his mother, she’s supposed to protect him.” But sympathy is no substitute for trust, the lack of which becomes concerning in the context of the pandemic: What if the student endangers the narrator’s life? How can she trust him? In her frustration, she bestows upon his character a suitably “hideous name,” taken from a legume: Vetch.

Of all the details we learn about Vetch, his name is particularly important for understanding what Nunez is up to in The Vulnerables. It recalls an early thought that the narrator has while observing flowers on her daily walk: “Can it be accidental that the names for flowers are also always beautiful words? . . . Names so appealing that people choose them for their baby girls.” This musing precedes an introduction to the novel’s characters: the narrator’s friends Rose, Violet, Jasmine, and Camellia, with whom she reunites at Lily’s funeral; Iris, Eureka’s owner; and Vetch, the unwelcome roommate. While the novel, which pieces together fragments of description, memory, and citation, feels at times like a writer’s pandemic notebook, naming its characters in this way nudges the project into a different mode. Here, Nunez’s writer-narrator is self-consciously playing God: conjuring a universe and giving everything in it a name.

This conspicuous authorial intervention momentarily disrupts the reader’s impulse to read The Vulnerables autobiographically. Nunez herself has long resisted this kind of interpretation, emphasizing that her novels are imaginative works, however much they feel like memoir: in The Paris Review, she categorized them as “pseudo autofiction,” because she refuses to render as characters the people she knows in real life—except for her parents, that is, who are “fair game.” The narrator of The Vulnerables is similarly misread by a student in her graduate fiction-writing class, who says: “I’ve read your novels and there’s one thing I have to ask: Do you make some of that stuff up?”

Such misapprehension is one of Nunez’s central preoccupations. While sentimental marketing language suggests that The Vulnerables reveals “what happens when strangers are willing to open their hearts to each other,” the novel’s real accomplishment is, to the contrary, its willingness to sit in the discomfort of missed and misplaced connections. When the narrator’s friends gather at a bar after Lily’s funeral, for example, they wonder if her husband knows of his late wife’s affairs, a conversation which quickly breaks down into pedantry. “Do you remember when she first got pregnant,” says Rose, “and how upset she was because she couldn’t be absolutely sure he was the father?” Though the baby had turned out to look just like him, and her daughter, the narrator points out, is the “spit and image” of her mother:

Why do you say that? Violet asked.

Because it’s true, don’t you think?

No, I mean, why do you say spit and image?

Because that’s the expression.

Yes, I know. But nobody says that . . . Everyone says spitting image . . .

This is a stupid conversation, said Violet.

Which you started! Rose and I say in unison.

Yes, you’re the one making a big deal out of it, I said.

Why are you being so irritable? said Rose.

Because someone I used to love very much lies in a cold dark hole in the ground and I’ll never see her again,” thinks the narrator, a line which remains unsaid. However minuscule, the disagreement is destabilizing because it suggests the possibility of a single, shared reality is mere illusion: there is only a friend hung up on idioms, and another with their mind in the cold, dark ground.

This is a lesson that the narrator of The Vulnerables repeatedly encounters throughout the pandemic, which escalates moments of misunderstanding into hazard: she is berated by a young friend for spending time outdoors; shunned by a stranger when she tries to return their lost Moleskine; scolded by a barista for touching the café’s countertop; and finally, targeted by a man on a bike in a balaclava, who maliciously coughs in her face. The narrator sprains her ankle while attempting to flee and develops a host of debilitating symptoms in the aftermath. Vetch emerges as an unexpected companion. One night, he leaves the narrator an edible on the kitchen counter with a note: helpful in the treatment of nausea and anxiety, as well as an appetite stimulant. “You want to do something kinky?” he asks later. “Let’s go sit in the living room.” Strewn over perpendicularly arranged couches, they make a habit of getting stoned and talking late into the night.

The narrator’s softening toward Vetch explores in miniature a truth momentarily exposed by the pandemic: our interconnectedness to each other, and to other species, means that our survival must be collective—it is dependent on our being vulnerable, rather than combative. She is reminded of this while watching My Octopus Teacher, a documentary that follows its producer, Craig Foster, on his dives through a seaweed forest off the South African coast. One day Foster encounters a curious cluster of shells, which he eventually learns is the armor-disguise of an octopus who spends much of her life evading predators. The narrator is captivated by the eventual friendship that develops between Foster and the octopus, perhaps seeing in it something of the bond between herself and Vetch: she is particularly heartened by the notion that “there was something about Foster that told the octopus that making herself vulnerable to this man was worth the risk.”

But just as the lacuna created by lockdown eventually yielded to “business-as-usual,” the momentary connection between Vetch and the narrator swiftly elapses. Vetch leaves for a loft in Long Island City, where he has a job at a nearby restaurant, to live with two roommates who needed a third. He takes Eureka too. “Nobody had discussed any of this with me,” remarks the narrator, stupefied. The true extent of her injury is revealed by the way her thoughts continually return to him; she even invents conversations between them. “But when I do he is never ‘Vetch,’” the narrator confesses. “Always his real name. His sweet name.” Though she feels betrayed by Vetch’s sudden departure, this reminder of the character’s moniker is a tacit acknowledgement of the narrator’s own manipulations, her literary sleight of hand.

In an essay for The Sewanee Review titled “Life and Story,” Nunez recalls how as a child she made a habit of ending her stories with the phrase “And then I woke up!” to avoid being accused of passing off something fictional as real. The Vulnerables handles this dilemma in more intriguing ways, but the narrator concedes that readers are justified in feeling misled by writers—particularly “in our own dark anti-truth times,” she writes, with “the growing use of story as a means to distort and obscure reality.” Recollecting how people were categorized during lockdown according to whether their work was essential or not, she quips that the distinction was easy for writers: only journalists are essential. Meanwhile the inessential pack was left to ponder the question, “Why are you making things up?”

Halfway through The Vulnerables, it seems as though Nunez herself has succumbed to that line of thinking. A demarcated interlude breaks with the novel’s plot altogether, shifting the reader into uncertain territory. Having abandoned Vetch and Eureka, the section strings together a series of citations, as if someone has inserted a craft essay on autobiographical writing in the middle of an otherwise cohesive novel. In fact, as Nunez revealed in a recent interview, the section was initially conceptualized as an independent piece titled “Preface to an Autobiography.” It begins with Rousseau and Didion, which leads to Chekhov, and then, by association, Woolf. After, it cascades into a fleeting scene in which the novel’s narrator reappears:

I like that Alan Bennett said, For a writer, nothing is ever quite as bad as it is for other people, because, however dreadful, it may be of use.

Oncologist says, That doesn’t sound like any writer I know . . .

An enormous stroke of luck is how García Márquez described his cancer diagnosis, for it goaded him to start writing his autobiography.

This episode follows in the death-haunted tradition of Nunez’s former work, which sets the demise of individuals against a contemporary moment that is saturated in a culture of entropy: pandemics, extinction, and the mundane horrors of aging. For the writing instructor in The Friend, who’s affronted to learn that he’s no longer attractive to women half his age, growing old is equivalent to a “castration”;  the middle-aged gym-goer in What Are You Going Through complains that she is heavier than she was in her youth. That aging is a privilege doesn’t make it easier to endure, though this particular grievance can start to sound a lot like solipsism, especially in The Vulnerables, with its setting marked by mass death. Perhaps Nunez’s point is that loss doesn’t necessarily restore perspective; only that it accumulates.

Connection begins by recognizing and eventually sharing in someone else’s fiction.

This might account for the novel’s concluding pages, which catalogue various forms of collapse: the fact that journalism, education, and English literature make the list of Ten Most Regretted Majors; that Stephen Hawking estimated humanity has only about a hundred years left on Earth—in 2017. If the elderly are often viewed enviably by the young in the context of the climate crisis, Nunez’s novels argue, to the contrary, that the planet’s decline makes it harder to accept one’s personal obsolescence. As the ailing friend in What Are You Going Through remarks:

You’d think it would be easier to leave life if you could convince yourself that everything was horrible and the future was totally bleak. But I can’t bear to think that I’ll be gone and the world won’t go on, infinitely rich, infinitely beautiful. Take that away and there’s no consolation.

This may ultimately be what motivates Nunez’s novels, which go on despite their mounting losses. Beyond enduring, or even eulogizing these conditions, her texts quietly defy the decaying forces to which they are subject—not because literature is immortal, but because it carves out a generative space that can creatively resist reality, even as it mimics it. In “Life and Story,” Nunez describes how she eventually discovered, “as all writers do, that writing was an ideal way to escape the world and to be a part of the world at the same time.”

Rather than police the boundary between them, The Vulnerables recognizes that reality can be enriched by fiction. While this novel, like Nunez’s previous works, gestures toward the risks associated with fictionalizing others, it ultimately suggests that invention might actually stoke, rather than stifle, relationships. In response to the scientists who discounted My Octopus Teacher as a feat of projection, the narrator wonders if they unwittingly described the basis of any friendship: if all reality is subjective, or partially constructed in our own minds, then connection begins by recognizing and eventually sharing in someone else’s fiction, or in the memories and associations they bring to bear on any given situation.

“Only when I was young did I believe that it was important to remember what happened in every novel I read,” the narrator says, in this spirit. “Now I know the truth: what matters is what you experience while reading, the states of feeling that the story evokes, the questions that rise to your mind, rather than the fictional events described.” In other words, life and fiction are palimpsests that mutually inform each other. In the novel’s final pages, she traces her own literary influences, a tangle of invention and memory: Joe Brainard’s novel I Remember evokes Georges Perec’s autobiography Je me souviens, which in turn inspired Annie Ernaux, who went on to name her collective memoir of postwar France after Virginia Woolf’s The Years—a book originally envisioned as part of an essay-novel, and the work to which The Vulnerables’ opening sentence pays homage. The novel ends shortly after this revelation, though it might feasibly go on beyond the page in the reader’s mind—infinitely rich, infinitely beautiful.