What are you going through, asks Sigrid Nuñez’ latest book pondering life, death, friendship, and the impossibility of knowing what trials another person is experiencing at any given time. It’s a short read, clocking in at 138 pages, but it takes you on a walk down a winding path in the unnamed female narrator’s head and then some.
The main thread of the story revolves around the narrator’s friend who is dying of cancer. She seeks companionship during her final days in the hospital and later in a New England Airbnb that she has rented to die in.
For the narrator, watching her friend navigate the process of dying evokes many thoughtful reflections about relationships, dying on one's own terms, and what it really means to have lived.
Tangents and text walls
I’m absolutely certain some people will pick up this book because of its essay-style exploration of existential themes. But I also feel very strongly that the style is exactly what’s polarising about it: for me specifically, what made the book immensely difficult to get through was the style. Specifically, the fact that there is a glaring lack of quotation marks around the majority of spoken text.
I never appreciated how much dialogue visually pushed a story forward until there wasn’t any of it. Any conversation felt reported in giant blocks of words. I understand this is poetic license, but as the text doesn’t flow or break naturally, it becomes off-putting after only a few chapters.
Further, a good chunk of What Are You Going Through is made up of the narrator's meandering trains of thought. It’s not a book for anyone seeking tight storytelling. There are whole chapters about conversations with a cat, a serial killer murder mystery novel the narrator is reading, and stories about her elderly neighbor and gym buddy.
And I appreciate how these little tangents illustrate the importance of asking what other people are going through, but the digressing combined with the difficult style made it so hard for me to hold on to the thread of the story.
What frustrated me the most was that I really did get into the storyline of the ill friend who wanted to go out with dignity. Waiting for your friend to die when you’re just starting to rediscover your relationship is a compelling story in itself. At many points I wished there was less meandering and more fleshing out of these two characters who were suddenly digging into some very interesting questions about life and death.
Even the ending felt exasperatingly out of reach, because instead of seeing definite closure about the friend’s death, we are diverted once again into the narrator’s vague observations of strangers we have no reason to care about.
Oddly enough, in a way that made me sympathise with the narrator, the book threw me into rambling existential loops. It made me ask, what am I doing here, plodding through this book? Why should I care about these people?
Which in turn raised questions: I would definitely care more about the narrator and this dying friend of hers if they were characters in a novel that was clearly escapism. What is it about the realness of their story and the un-sugarcoated way it's being told that makes me reflexively numb myself?
What is it about being human that makes us turn away from the uncomfortable, unglamorous parts of the human condition?
Which I guess means the book has fulfilled its purpose of provoking thought, if it didn't necessarily provide pleasure or enjoyment.
Try to listen
If this year has awakened you to questions about life, death, climate change, and what it means to connect with other human beings - and if walls of text don’t deter you - then What Are You Going Through might be a book for you.
(Fun fact: there are a few lines here and there about bioterrorists engineering a virus that causes a pandemic - which, given the state of affairs in 2020 that the author couldn't have predicted while writing this book last year - is darkly funny.)
Speed through this book over the weekend, then call up a friend and ask them what they are going through. And no matter how much their thoughts may meander, or become repetitive, or delve into the macabre, try to actually listen. Life is short, and you’ll never know who will be watching dated movies with you in a cozy Airbnb at the end of it.