THE VULNERABLES, by Sigrid Nunez
Animals and uncomfortable topics: Count on these in a Sigrid Nunez novel. Her slim, discursive, minor yet charming new one, “The Vulnerables,” is no exception.
The animal is a parrot, a sociable macaw named Eureka. The narrator, an unnamed writer, moves into a friend’s apartment in Manhattan to care for Eureka when his owner gets stuck on the West Coast. It’s the spring of 2020 and America is in Covid lockdown. The bird needs company. Macaws have egos. They can go mad, like the rest of us, if neglected for too long.
The apartment, a condo near Madison Square Park, is luxury squared. It is described as “the collision of great imagination, great taste and a whole lot of money.” The owners also have a place upstate, and a third in (obviously) Marfa, Texas. If there is one thing Covid taught us, Nunez writes, it’s that more people than we thought have places upstate.
“The Vulnerables” is Nunez’s ninth novel. Her best-known remains “The Friend,” which won a National Book Award in 2018. This one comes across as a Covid diary, with a light scaffolding of incident to hold its meditations up.
The narrator’s interactions with the parrot are funny and moving. Not having more pets is among her central regrets. Playing with Eureka makes her melancholy, because “animals having fun can be a poignant spectacle — I suppose partly because it narrows the gap between us and them.”
I can do without animals, most of the time, in novels. But Nunez is a closer observer than most, and she is wittier. She reports on a cockatoo that has been taught to say Bette Davis’s famous line, parodied by Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”: “What a dump!”
The uncomfortable topics are mostly the narrator’s instinctive pushback against what Robert Hughes called the culture of complaint. “When men appear in fiction now,” she writes, “it’s usually to be criticized or denounced for something. The one thing you’re never prepared to hear is that the men will do the right thing.” It isn’t just women showing men in a relentlessly bad light, each one a “bungler or loser or some kind of creep,” Nunez goes on. Anyone who reads novels on a regular basis will recognize the veracity of her follow-up:
Seven times out of 10, she fails to mention, the young woman will have green eyes.
This book’s title refers to the fact that, because she is on the far side of 65, the narrator is “a vulnerable” in the face of Covid. Every novel is about aging, in a way, but Nunez is especially attuned to old age’s tender humiliations. When a handsome young man arrives to share the apartment with her, she is unhappy. She had expected to be alone.
He makes her feel her age. Is sex over for her? A friend says that life can be a minefield in middle age, because “you’re not quite ready to give up, but your sexual radar can get a bit skewed, and you have to worry more and more about making a spectacle of yourself.”
Nunez can be relied upon to carry her thoughts one beat further than most writers. Thus her narrator recalls the horror of being a very young person forced to confront, on a class trip on Valentine’s Day to a nursing home, the very old:
Like certain storms, this novel churns intensely in one place. There is a bit more plot. The narrator joins old friends at a funeral. They stay up late, talking and passing a joint. The narrator has insomnia; her writing is going poorly; she can’t concentrate. She wanders happily in an emptied-out Manhattan. She embodies John Ashbery’s comment, in his poem “The Bungalows,” that “sometimes standing still is also life.”
She lives near the Union Square Greenmarket, so she doesn’t need to have food delivered. But she quotes a viral tweet that described lockdown as “the middle class hiding while working-class people bring them things.”
I am committed, until one of us dies, to Nunez’s novels. I find them ideal. They are short, wise, provocative, funny — good and strong company. Her narrator marshals a defense of the short, semifictional novel. “The traditional novel has lost its place as the major genre of our time,” she writes. “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.”
She concludes: “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.”
You don’t have to follow her all the way, and start digging the novel’s grave, to sense that she is onto something. It has always been true: Being told about life, by a perceptive writer, can be as good as, if not better than, being told a story.
THE VULNERABLES | By Sigrid Nunez | Riverhead | 242 pp. | $28