Sigrid Nunez has always been a brilliant, quirky writer beloved by a discerning few, but only broke through to a larger audience and the highest of literary accolades with her sixth novel, 2018′s “The Friend.” That book drew rhapsodic reactions from critics, many of whom wondered why they hadn’t noticed her sufficiently before; won the National Book Award; and was a finalist for a number of other prestigious prizes. 2020′s “What Are You Going Through,” which may be an even better novel, also received wide acclaim. Now, we have what Nunez and her publisher have presented as the final installment in a kind of trilogy, “The Vulnerables,” set mostly in New York City in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Slim, ruminative, by turns wry and witty, with a reluctantly aging, exceedingly well-read, writer-narrator very like Sigrid Nunez herself, all three novels are marked by their author’s formidable intelligence, refusal of simple answers or reductive pieties, and eccentric blend of profundity and playfulness. All three are stuffed with quotations from philosophers, poets, and novelists, meditate on the writer’s calling and the value of writing in an increasingly commercial world, and address suffering, disappointment, and loss with honesty and humor. Toward the end of “The Vulnerables,” a writer friend of the narrator declares that “elegy plus comedy . . . is the only way to express how we live now.” Elegy Plus Comedy is indeed the tacit motto for all three books and could caption the boxed set.
If “The Friend” felt at times like a writer’s diary or commonplace book, studded with incidental observations and erudite quotations, and meandering along in charmingly offbeat fashion, “The Vulnerables” feels even more so: more haphazardly constructed and overstuffed, crammed with news headlines and anecdotes, lines and observations from other writers. After an arresting first few pages about life during the pandemic, we flash back, and almost 70 pages are devoted to a group of old friends reuniting at a funeral for one of their circle and to the childhood memories that surface as a result. Their discussions about cancel culture in particular feel a bit hackneyed, especially to an aficionado of Nunez, who’s done this kind of thing better in the previous two books.
But once we enter the pandemic in earnest, the novel hits its (ambling) stride. Nunez describes “how transformed the stricken city was” and eerily evokes “people’s pandemic quirks, the weirdness that now characterized everyday life.” The narrator can’t “help feeling guilty about the pleasure [she] took in the lifeless streets” and how strangely exhilarating it felt “to be the only pedestrian for blocks, to have an acre of Central Park” to herself. And yet she is also paralyzed — unable to read or write, told she is especially vulnerable because of her age. So when she is enlisted to bird-sit for Eureka, a mini macaw whose owners are stranded in California, she jumps at the opportunity and soon takes up residence in their sprawling luxury apartment in order to provide the bird with the “whole lot of admiration” it needs.
Nunez is one of our best writers on animals and the strange, touching bonds we form with them. She once published a mock biography of Mitz, a rescue marmoset nursed back to health and kept as a pet by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. In “The Friend,” the narrator falls in love with a majestic and enormously endearing Great Dane. In like vein, the “Vulnerables”’ narrator becomes animal-crazed: obsessed with Eureka, entranced with “My Octopus Teacher,” amused by pandemic puppy-madness and the surge of interest in birding. Eureka, whose magnificent quarters are reminiscent of Henri Rousseau paintings, is vain, needy, a show-off, yet irresistible. The narrator quickly becomes hopelessly devoted to her “feathered charge.”
Their routine is disrupted, however, by the appearance of a young man the narrator calls Vetch, Eureka’s former bird sitter, who shows up at the apartment one afternoon and never leaves. As a teenager, Vetch was diagnosed with “intermittent explosive disorder” and a “major eating disorder.” More recently, he’s dropped out of NYU and stolen from his wealthy parents; expelled from their apartment, he has fallen on the pity of Eureka’s owners. Our narrator is unsettled, jealous of his bond with Eureka, and somewhat afraid of him, but can’t return to her apartment because she’s loaned it to a visiting doctor who’s caring for COVID patients.
Fortunately, Vetch turns out to be unexpectedly kind, open-hearted, appealingly vulnerable. The narrator soon joins him in smoking joints, micro-dosing, and indulging in vegan ice cream sundaes as they converse about everything from their psychiatric to their romantic histories.
Our narrator considers “the vulnerables” and vulnerability in many forms and incarnations: the elderly, infants, the immunocompromised, women in the face of predatory men, service and front-line workers, animals and birds (endangered species and rescue animals), bullied children, the mentally ill. Vulnerability both inherent (Vetch’s doctor says his psychiatric “vulnerability” will always be there) and situational is omnipresent.
At 242 pages, “The Vulnerables” is about 30 pages longer than its predecessors, and the extra weight makes it less nimble. It is a bit less disciplined and a bit less emotionally powerful than its trilogy-mates, and Nunez’s snark about identity politics and “our brave new cultural world” feels a bit too querulous and tetchy this time around. But to say that “The Vulnerables” is the weakest of the three books is merely to say that it isn’t a flat-out masterpiece, so high has Nunez set the bar. Her Wordsworthian exploration of “how much of life is shaped by sadness for what’s left behind,” her rare ability to be at once wistfully elegiac and sharply hilarious make “The Vulnerables” a gift.
By Sigrid Nunez
Riverhead, 256 pp., $28
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy” and “The Critic’s Daughter.”