What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez


I knew this book was about an unnamed narrator who agreed to be with a friend who had come to the end of an unsuccessful cancer treatment and had pills to end her life. So I was prepared for a difficult book, but the first chapter that describes a talk the narrator heard by a professor that let me know that was not the hard part of the book for me. His message was about climate change and after thoroughly depressing the audience, he said there would be no questions.

Then I learned a new word, uxoricide, the killing of one’s wife, thanks to a book in the Airbnb where the narrator is staying. She only reads a bit of it, and tells us she didn’t have much curiosity about how the murders would be solved.

That chapter ends this way:

She was just thinking, she said.

Flaubert said, To think is to suffer.

Is this the same as Aristotle’s To perceive is to suffer?

Always make the audience suffer as much as possible. Alfred Hitchcock.

Sufferin’ succotash. Sylvester the cat.

Then there’s rumination on being a beautiful woman and becoming old, and thereby being a disappointment to others. The narrator refers to Woman A who “often thinks back to those years when old age seemed a very distant thing, more like an option than a law of nature.”

On another evening in the Airbnb the narrator reads more in the mystery book, about a serial killer. She turns out the light and the household cat began telling her stories of his life, ending with the happy day when he was adopted by the Airbnb owner, “a real Scheherazade, that cat.”

The narrator returns to her home and tells about her kindly visits to her very old neighbor who ultimately became bitter and unpleasant. Here’s how she ended that chapter:

What are you going through? When Simone Weil said that being able to ask this question was what love of one’s neighbor truly meant, she was writing in her native French. And in French the great question sounds quite different:  Quel est ton tourment?

At this point she turns to the request from her friend to be with her when she ends her life—not to be a party to the event, but to be with her during the weeks before. Other closer friends had refused to do this as they could not stand by while she took her life, even though they understood her decision to do so.

This is how it is with people, she tells me now. No matter what, they want you to keep fighting. This is how we’ve been taught to see cancer:  a fight between patient and disease. Which is to say between good and evil. There’s a right way and a wrong way to act. A strong way and a weak way. The warrior’s way and the quitter’s way. If you survive you’re a hero. If you lose, well, maybe you didn’t fight hard enough.

Here’s a thought I found interesting:  “Dying is a role we play like any other role in life:  this is a troubling thought. You are never your true self except when you’re alone—but who wants to be alone, dying?” I would say that there is no single “true self,” you are many selfs, including the one when you are alone. And I understand that some people do want to be alone when they are dying.

Her experiences as a companion to her friend were interesting and appealing. After they had driven for hours and arrived at the house where they were to stay, the friend realized she had forgotten the pills. They laughed at the thought of a sitcom:  Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia. First her friend spoke for hours and hours, until she couldn’t any longer and then the narrator read to her friend for hours and hours. And finally words became less important.

I found the early parts of the book mystifying and unpleasant. On the other hand the later part of the book appealed to me. It’s not surprising that as a former hospice volunteer, I appreciated what the narrator said about their time together.

Here’s what I wrote about the other Sigrid Nunez book I’ve read:  The Last of Her Kind.

Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through, Riverhead Books, 2020, 210 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.

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