Despite weighing in at little more than 200 pages, Sigrid Nunez’s new novel sure is heavy.
Brilliant but informal, sad yet laugh-out-loud funny, The Friend is a digressive bumblebee of a novel that alights on aging, death, the waning power of literature and the strength of friendship. It’s a book of fragments that questions what it means to be human.
When a middle-aged New York City writing professor—unnamed, as are all human characters in the book—loses her longtime mentor and friend to suicide, she floats through her days in a bubble of stunned grief. Then her friend’s latest wife—now widow—known as “number three,” asks the narrator to take Apollo, her husband’s massive, aged Great Dane.
Even though her apartment building does not allow dogs (and it would be impossible to hide one that’s large enough for children to ride on), she agrees. Apollo is also grieving, spending his days waiting forlornly at the door and his nights howling out his anguish. Slowly, their uneasy coexistence becomes an intense, exclusive partnership that alarms the narrator’s friends. “Oh,” says a woman she meets at a party, “you’re the one who’s in love with a dog.” Her friends worry she will be homeless—booted from her rent-controlled apartment, a very real possibility the narrator ignores. But woman and dog have an inner journey to make, swimming upstream against their grief and puzzlement in an attempt to understand why their friend abandoned them.
Nunez’s seventh novel is small yet rich. Replete with limpid asides on writing, writers and what it means to be a person of words in an increasingly emoji world, The Friend will appeal in particular to fans of postmodern authors such as David Markson. Talented as she is, Nunez should be better known among readers. If you’re already a fan, this beautiful, spare work will not disappoint. If you aren’t, this relevant novel is the perfect introduction.