Love and loss: the twin preoccupations of life and literature. Humans crave love that is lasting, loyal, perhaps even redemptive, and yet we find ourselves heartbroken time and again. Fortunately, when things are really bad, we can always get a puppy.
Certainly, the puppy option is available to writers — in life, of course, but more to the point, in their writing. They’re handy literary devices. Dogs nose their way into all genres, and readers grow no more tired of them than they tire of the people crowding their books. Plus, dog love is simple; they instinctively understand when people are suffering.
The dog in Sigrid Nunez’s new novel, “The Friend,” is an almost mystically grand beast named Apollo, a 180-pound Harlequin Great Dane. His size corresponds to the grief Nunez’s narrator is living with as the story opens. Her much-loved friend and literary mentor has committed suicide; within about 30 pages, and reluctantly at first, the narrator is living not only with her grief for this man but with his equally bereft dog.
The dog’s arrival is the central story, but the novel moves artfully through the narrator’s memories and her present sorrow. Anger, too. The character best developed in this haze of grief is the one who dies before we ever meet him — and to whom the narrator directs a kind of epistolary monologue. The book, written in second person, addresses the dead friend, and sometimes his dog; the distinction is not always important. (“His hazel eyes are strikingly human,” she tells her friend; “they remind me of yours.”)
In the narrator’s contemplation, we learn the mentor-author was also a thrice-married womanizer for whom sex was a creative force: “You yourself never wrote better than during those periods when you were having lots of good sex,” she recalls him saying. His promiscuity is a character flaw that makes him especially vulnerable to physical decline. One day, inevitably, a mirror tells an ugly truth: The writer’s aging body has lost its genius. “A power has been taken away, it can never be given back again,” the narrator thinks.
It’s evidence of a far deeper loss. The gulf between the friend’s worldview, particularly his devotion to writing, and that of his students has grown wide; young writers are hostile to his values. The students find the whole idea of the writer as a gifted truth-teller — as a kind of god — contemptible. They sneer at the idea of art as a high calling with the same disdain they have for men who call female students “dear.”
Is any of this enough to end one’s life over? Well — but what is? And in any case, in this novel (in which dozens of authors are referenced, deepening its literary flavor), one man’s fatal despair suggests something much larger has been lost as our culture has evolved. It happens that Apollo likes to be read to, and Rilke especially appeals to him. Both the narrator and her mentor found inspiration in Rilke, who approached writing reverently. Young writers now “do not feel that Rilke is speaking to them. … They say it’s a lie that writing is a religion requiring the devotion of a priest. They say it’s ridiculous,” she says. “There was a time when young writers … believed that Rilke’s world was eternal. I agree with my students that that world has vanished. But at their age it would not have occurred to me that it could vanish, let alone in my lifetime.”
There: despair. It lurks all around, as one immersed in grief quickly learns. A woman the narrator meets while walking Apollo, for instance, is preoccupied with the terrible suffering of China’s Tibetan mastiffs and all other dogs bred “for the traits people want them to have,” she says, adding, “I shudder to think what it’ll be like 50 or a hundred years from now … but by then, the whole earth will have been destroyed.” The idea seems to comfort her; one way or another, this decline has an end.
But what about the dog — does something bad happen to the dog, we want to know? Even as Apollo looms large (literally) in the story, there are long stretches in which he does not appear at all. The contemplation of writing and the loss of integrity in our literary life form the heart of the novel. With the death of the author-friend, a world is slipping away. Apollo brings comfort because he somehow intuits this — after all, he too knows what it is to be no longer wanted. And because he is one of such a large breed, Apollo — aptly named for a god of antiquity — is not long for this world himself, most probably.
“The Friend” could almost carry a trigger warning for writers, teachers and readers, except that Nunez’s prose itself comforts us. Her confident and direct style uplifts — the music in her sentences, her deep and varied intelligence. She addresses important ideas unpretentiously and offers wisdom for any aspiring writer who, as the narrator fears, may never know this dear, intelligent friend — or this world that is dying.
But is it dying?
Perhaps. But with “The Friend,” Nunez provides evidence that, for now, it survives.