Review by Walter Cummins
While reading The Vulnerables, my eye kept being drawn to the subtitle, A Novel, in the header at the top of every page, as if Sigrid Nunez was intentionally challenging the reader to ponder why she gave that designation to a narrative without the central dramatic situation called for by the genre. Instead, this book relates a series of situations and reflections rather than telling a singular story. What actually unites the book is a metaphoric condition depicted through integrated examples of human vulnerabilities experienced by or known to the narrator.
The immediate vulnerability is the Covid pandemic that affects people in the narrator’s life, from old friends to newly confronted persons and creatures for whom she develops a sense of responsibility. The pandemic is a trap—people fearful of physical interactions with another human, shut in or displaced from their homes, unable to escape from distant locations where they just happened to be when a lockdown was enforced, The narrator can’t avoid reassessing her past in the context of the constrained present. The threats of the pandemic accentuate the realization that vulnerability lies at the heart of human existence, faced continually by all of us, but not so openly as Covid has made it.
I’ve deliberately called the teller of the book “the narrator” to resist the impulse to refer to her as Nunez. They do seem to have much in common, both being writers with similar origins, dwellings in the city, and life experiences. The voice of the telling is engaging and convincing, as if to read the book is to be captivated by a fascinating new acquaintance who wins us over with her first words. She is seemingly unfocused and digressive, but—ultimately—it all hangs together, all of the situations and memories cohering and reinforcing each other.
Nunez the author is so convincing as the seeming Nunez the teller that most readers probably will believe the book is a form of personal journal rather than a novel, as if it were written to fulfill an assignment on how I spend the pandemic. But all of it could be a fiction—her young sort-term apartment mate, Vetch, the macaw they are caring for, Eureka, the physician who was occupying the narrator’s apartment, the pregnant friend quarantined in California, in fact, all of the people existing in the narrator’s present and past imaginative creations.
The book itself offers no clues that the reader should be suspicious, but in Wyatt Mason’s profile of Nunez in the New York Times Magazine, Nunez reveals her surprise when readers of pervious works took her literally. That includes the critic Vivian Gornick, who was surprised to learn the dog in Nunez’s National Book Award novel, The Friend, was not a real pet living in Nunez’s apartment. To Gornick, “The Friend” was essentially memoir. “I think a fictional narrator has another agenda, one that doesn’t sound like the writer herself who is writing.” Nunez fooled Gornick.
In addition to its concerns with the dilemmas of the human condition, The Vulnerables also reflects on writing and the novel as genre, especially near the book’s culmination.
Growing consensus: The traditional novel has lost its place as the major genre of our time. It may not be dead yet, but it will not long abide. No matter how well done, it seems to lack urgency. No matter how imaginative, it seems to lack originality. While still a powerful means of portraying human character and human experience, somehow, more and more, fictional storytelling is coming across as beside the point. More and more writers are having difficulty quieting a voice that says, Why are you making things up? Conclusion: Perhaps what is wanted in our own dark anti-truth times, with all our blatant hypocrisy and the growing use of story as a means to distort and obscure reality, is a literature of personal history and reflection: direct, authentic, scrupulous about fact.
This from a novelist who is in the midst of creating a book she designates as a novel but simulates a work of personal history and reflection that may only give the illusion of being scrupulous about fact. Ponder the subtitle.