Bük Kloob is a series of book reviews loosely related to a book club I started.
You can’t explain death to an animal, so what must they think? The fact that somebody doesn’t come home anymore, that’s just inexplicable. And for a certain kind of dog there’s the added horror of, “Is my owner in trouble? I’m supposed to be there.”
Death to a dog happens in the abstract. Do they have a relationship to death? What are their thoughts on our death? What are their thoughts on their own death? Is there any sort of understanding?
These thoughts, as exemplified by the quote above, is what must have run through Sigrid Nunez‘s head when writing The Friend, a story about love, loss, dogs, and death that so succinctly bundles these conversations together in a speedy just-over 200 pages. These musings on dogs and death – courtesy of a conversation on Lit Hub – illuminate the complexity of this situation. Death, something so universal yet so alien, will never be fully understood by anyone. Not even by our best friends.
The book is about a writer trying to work through the death of a friend. Said friend, a writer and professor, was so close to the writer that she cannot form words on the love that they had, a sort of friendship that defies label. On top of this, the friend bestowed her his dog: Apollo, a giant Great Dane who is in greater, more physical mourning than she is. The dog is as literal as he is metaphorical and looms large in the novel as a fleeting constant of a relationship, of the lives that we all live.
What unfolds with The Friend is a meditation on the act of living – and living with writing, with telling stories. Much of the novel is concerned with explaining what it means to go through these experiences while being firmly within these experiences. Positioned between Nunez’s own fiction and fact – another incarnation of the trendy, literary, of-the-now autofiction variety – The Friend shifts her own analyzing of history from the macro to the extreme micro, to this one relationship, this one dog, this one place, this one time, this one life. She advances autofiction’s more navel gazing tendency to analyze art and history as it happens, resulting in works that become self-referential historical novels, by shifting the focus away from bigger picture events like 9/11 or hurricanes striking major cities; instead, the work is concerned with the everyday tragedies, the aspects of life that are so big and tragic to the individual that it transcends one person, becoming the story of us all. In this way, she peaks the notion of blurring fact and fiction by making the conversation irrelevant: life and death just are. This is the story of one person’s encounter with the subjects that just happens to pull a few moments from the author’s life.
And the work wholly acknowledges this, incorporating thoughts on writing – and writing about the self – as a way of working through the text. Not a book that is about its being written, no, but instead one that calls into question works that fold an author in on itself. What is manifested instead with The Friend is a sort of sublime unreliable, a narrator whose grief consumes so much that the tale is told through blurred eyes.
What is accomplished in this book is no small feat. It is a work so confident, so focused, that one can’t help but feel that they are writing it themselves by reading it. It also holds one of the rare positions of being a book concerned – and dedicated – to dogs that doesn’t trivialize the animal’s experience, making them flip sob stories that a writer flexes upon. Nunez instead joins the likes of Eileen Myles and Mark Haddon, whose works Afterglow and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime elevate writing about these animals beyond the obvious or “normal.” These writers have created a canine literary. They are exercises in not only examining these animals but examining ourselves in the most unusual ways.
The Friend is a marvel. It’s quick, it’s loving, and it’s the sort of book that reminds you of the power of a text. It is a must for 2018.