Hello, how are you? When greeted and then asked a question such as this, my default would always be to say I’m okay and then move on to other things. Sometimes though, I wonder what would happen if we instead stopped and answered a little more truthfully and lengthily.
What if you replied and said:
I’m okay, though I really miss the feeling of being in a coffee shop with the jazzy music and earthy hearty smells. I might be developing this small crush on another human being but I also don’t think I’m really ready for a relationship, so I’m just enjoying the rare conversations we have with each other.
Or maybe something like:
I’m okay, although work is getting quite stressful since I can’t see the faces of my students, feel their physical presence in the room, and gauge whether they understand what in the world I’m blabbering on about. Oh and yes, things at home have been a little quiet but sometimes I feel distinctly like I’m drowning.
These aren’t exactly things we share or expect people to share with us when we simply ask how are you? It’s more of a cursory part of regular greetings that we’ve gotten so used to asking. In Sigrid Nunez’ second novel, however, she asks What Are You Going Through and gives us a myriad of answers too.
Plot? What plot?
The story basically revolves around the narrator’s encounters with different people as she regularly visits her friend who is terminally ill with cancer. While the premise sounds simple and straightforward, the novel is not the walk in the park you expect. In fact, Sigrid Nunez’ work may be a little difficult to read for most as the plot is not the driving force behind the novel.
I’m one of those readers who latch on to the story to drive my reading forward, so this was honestly a little hard to get into at first. There were many moments in the beginning wherein I had to catch myself and try to recall what was happening in the story only to come up blank for a good few minutes. Pro tip: I found it easier to read in long stretches rather than short bursts. You do get used to this newer structure (or lack of structure?) as you read on, and the story begins to kick in a bit more as you accompany the narrator on her visits to her friend in the hospital.
An anthology of experiences
While plot might not be driving you forward, you are introduced to a whole chorus of people whose lives will keep you turning page after page. There’s the nameless woman at the gym, the narrator’s ex-boyfriend, the aging Airbnb host and her cat (I love cats! There is a whole section dedicated to this cat!), and even the killer in a novel on a table in that same Airbnb. Each person’s life is like a mini-story of its own; you get sucked into the finer details of their thoughts and ideas. Front and center are all these characters, but not in the sense that we are used to.
There’s a healthy mix of both telling and showing in this novel. Our narrator introduces us to the lives of the people she has met and continues to meet throughout the novel, jumping from one to the next and circling back to previously mentioned ones too. As I was reading, I felt like I was sitting in a library with the main character and she was telling me about each of the books lined up on her shelves. There was so much beautiful insight with each story, but at times it was difficult to see the connections between each of these vastly different books.
I guess while What Are You Going Through is technically a work of fiction, it made more sense for me to read it like a collection of personal essays. Each character’s life represented and talked about a different aspect of humanity, and I absolutely loved the reflection and introspection that came with them. These were raw (and at times painful) reflections on beauty, love and marriage, on families and children, on what it means to be a woman, on the futility of mindfulness, on the doom we face as a race, and on humanity as a whole. Each of these people with their own stories made their way into the larger life of the narrator in a messy hodgepodge, which I guess is not unlike what our own lives look like—a haphazard collage of overlapping experiences and people.
This is not a book for escapists. This isn’t a book you read if you want to be transported to a completely different world and a completely different life. While it is a book that shows you the lives of very many people in all the shades of emotion and hues of happiness and suffering that color their days, it is a book that makes you look at your own life too—what are you going through? This is a book for those willing to take a look at the lives they live and the lives that surround them.
Several weeks ago my boss at work emailed me regarding a few changes in my teaching schedule for the year. She said Hello, Jody. How are you? And I mean HOW ARE YOU? It made me tear up a little bit as I wrote my reply to her.