Last night at the 2018 National Book Awards, Sigrid Nunez took the National Book Award in Fiction for her novel The Friend. Here’s critic Michele Filgate’s review, from earlier this year. To see all the winners of this year’s awards, click here.
The first dog I ever owned was a Doberman Pinscher. Snickers came into my life when I was six years old, and we named him after the candy bar. He was many things, but he wasn’t a guard dog. One night, a stranger knocked on our front door, and my dad got a bad vibe. “We have a vicious dog,” he lied. But to support the bluff, he hooked a hand around Snickers’ collar and tried to pull him toward the front hallway. He wouldn’t budge. Snickers had no interest in protecting us that night, but there are countless other ways in which he made himself a vital part of our family, including leading my grandmother and me home when we were lost in the woods during a blizzard.
It’s not easy to talk about the connection between humans and dogs without seeming saccharine and being labeled as trite. But Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is a wholly original novel about that sacred bond. An unnamed female writer is devastated when her good friend and former teacher kills himself, and befuddled when she finds out that he named her as someone who could take care of his beloved, elderly harlequin Great Dane named Apollo. But she loves animals, and — even though she is by her own admission a “cat person,” she finds herself moved to take on this unforeseen charge.
There’s a snag right away: Dogs aren’t allowed in her 500-square-foot Manhattan apartment, but the gigantic creature makes a home for himself there, lounging on her bed and taking up the limited space. It’s uncomfortable at first, but the narrator grows deeply attached to him. Apollo picks up on her grief, and one day he brings a book to her, as if he knows she will feel better if she reads it aloud. He is soothed by her voice, and she’s soothed by his presence. “What are we, Apollo and I, if not two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other?” she asks herself.
Apollo’s presence is also a route to reflections on her friend’s life, and death. It’s a relationship portrayed as having a convincing messiness — not least because it crossed over briefly into sex. Nor had the friend’s suicide come as a complete shock -– he had hinted at what was to come “Once, you cracked us up with the line I think I’d prefer a novella of a life.” In his absence, the writer does what writers do — she writes about who he was and how he viewed the world. It’s a way to understand her own feelings; a testament to their friendship. But telling his story comes with its own sense of guilty appropriation. “A major theme in the work of Christa Wolf is the fear that writing about someone is a way of killing that person,” she says. ” . . . The shame of being a writer haunted her all her life.”
Nunez’s novel is packed with pithy observations about her chosen profession, often from the dead friend: “At a conference once, you startled the packed audience by saying, Where do all you people get the idea that being a writer is a wonderful thing?” she remembers. He had quoted Georges Simenon on the literary life: “Not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness.”
These starkly honest moments give some texture to an otherwise simple story: woman loses a mentor she might have been in love with and finds solace in a dog. Boiling the book down to that basic synopsis doesn’t do justice to the backbone of this novel. The Friend is as much about grieving as it is about being a writer, drawing on quotations from voices as disparate as Czesław Miłosz, Virginia Woolf, and Rainer Maria Rilke as a way to engage with a question most authors ask themselves: Can you write your way through painful experiences? Nunez suggests that you can. Her unnamed narrator’s journey from solitude to a shared solitude with a dog is moving, for sure, but never in an overly sentimental manner. What makes the book work is the way The Friend reflects on loss, life, and creativity in such a straightforward and bold way: “In a book I am reading the author talks about word people versus fist people. As if words could not also be fists. Aren’t often fists.”
That image is a memorable acknowledgement of writing’s role as psychic self-defense; a way to fight against the sharp pain of loss. But in the best moments, it’s an act of surrender. “What we miss — what we lose and what we mourn — isn’t it this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are,” the narrator writes. “To say nothing of what we wanted in life but never got to have.” The Friend is proof that what we lack is itself a vital part of life — and that loss can lead to meaningful connections found in unlikely places. Sometimes it can take an animal to make a person understand their own humanity. And sometimes a book as unexpected as The Friend can provide as much comfort as any canine companion.