It would be wrong to suggest that Sigrid Nunez, a crisply philosophical and undervalued novelist, is preoccupied with animals. But when they do appear in her work, they leave an impression.
In her first novel, “A Feather on the Breath of God” (1995), which contains extraordinary writing about ballet, a man emigrates from China to Panama. As his boat leaves the dock, his dog, which has been brought to see him off, releases an unearthly howl.
Nunez’s novel “Mitz” (1998) is the tender biography of a sickly marmoset that was adopted by Leonard Woolf and became a fixture of Bloomsbury society. Nunez described Mitz with her customary élan: “How small she was! A mere scrap of a monkey. You could have balanced her on your palm, like a fur apple. A head no bigger than a walnut, two black pips for eyes, and the tiniest nostrils — mere pinpricks.”
In her apocalyptic novel “Salvation City” (2010), about a plague, a family has a basset hound named Sadie. Its full name, worth repeating because good dog names are as rare in literature as they are in life, is Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.
And in her memoir “Sempre Susan” (2011), about her friendship with Susan Sontag, Nunez reports that the poet Joseph Brodsky loved cats and sometimes, as a greeting, would meow. Perhaps Brodsky said — as did a cat in “Ulysses,” in Joyce’s onomatopoeia — “Mrkgnao!”
These details are prelude to announcing that the unnamed heroine of Nunez’s dry, allusive and charming new novel, “The Friend,” is a writer and a cat person. More specifically, she is a cat person in a 500-square-foot Manhattan apartment who inherits, after the suicide of a friend, his harlequin Great Dane.
The comedy here writes itself. When she walks the enormous dog, which is named Apollo, passers-by ask: “Have you tried riding him?” The dog likes being read to. At one point he brings the heroine a Karl Ove Knausgaard novel from her coffee table. Woof!
This novel’s tone in general, however, is mournful and resonant. It sheds rosin, like the bow of a cello. The woman grieves for her friend, who was her mentor and, if only once, her lover. His dog soothes her; they sleep in the same bed; he is a constant reminder of the man she misses.
“When you’re lying in bed full of night thoughts,” she thinks, “such as why did your friend have to die and how much longer will it be before you lose the roof over your head, having a huge warm body pressed along the length of your spine is an amazing comfort.”
This book brings a set of complicated facts and emotions to our #MeToo moment. The narrator’s dead friend was a beautiful man with a BBC accent, a writer and teacher and womanizer. He frequently slept with his students, of whom, back in the day, she was one.
“The classroom was the most erotic place in the world,” he had argued. “To deny this was puerile. Read George Steiner. Read ‘Lessons of the Masters.’” She falls in love with him. He ends it, but they remain lifelong friends.
As he ages she compares him to David Lurie, the protagonist of J. M. Coetzee’s great novel “Disgrace.” “You were one of several Lurian friends I’ve known: reckless, priapic men risking careers, livelihoods, marriages — everything.”
Lurie considered self-castration because, as Nunez asks, “would that really be any more disgusting than the antics of a dirty old man?” The friend’s answer is suicide. (I wish Nunez had realized that the ideal first sentence of her novel appears on its second page. That sentence is: “There were two errors in your obituary.”)
The narrator’s own students disappoint her, as do the new rules of the faculty lounge, which encourage you to turn in another professor for telling even a mild off-color joke.
Her students are doctrinaire. Reading their papers about books, she thinks: “You got customer reviews full of umbrage, suggesting that if a book didn’t affirm what the reader already felt — what they could identify with, what they could relate to — the author had no business writing the book at all.”
The writing profession, in “The Friend,” is viewed as a series of little murders of the soul. Writers are weird, jealous, greedy, backbiting, warped from the undersea compression of competition in Manhattan. “If reading really does increase empathy, as we are constantly being told that it does,” the narrator says, “it appears that writing takes some away.”
The narrator seems to share with her dead friend a “loss of conviction in the purpose of fiction — today, when no novel, no matter how brilliantly written or full of ideas, was going to have any meaningful impact on society, when it was impossible even to imagine anything like what had led Abraham Lincoln to say, meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, in 1862, So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
“The Friend” is thick with quotations and anecdotes from the lives and work of many writers, in a way that can recall the bird’s-nest-made-of-citations novels of David Markson. Nunez deals these out deftly; they do not jam her flow. The snap of her sentences sometimes put me in mind of Rachel Cusk.
There is a bit of drama. The narrator’s apartment does not allow dogs. Still, she decides she cannot part with Apollo. Her friends stage an intervention. Apollo is not worth being cast out of Manhattan, they tell her.
She realizes she has somewhat gone off the deep end. At a book party, a woman she has never met before giggles at her and says, “Aren’t you the one who’s in love with a dog?” It is not worth spoiling how this all turns out.
Writers and dogs. They are alike in the sense that, as Charles Simic put it in “Ax,” one of his early poems:
He who cannot howl
Will not find his pack.