by Sigrid Nunez
Discussions about Sigrid Nunez's The Friend this week were as tangential as the book itself. Like it or loathe it, this book sparked so much lively conversation and made for a wonderful week with the Riverbend Readers.
We had some fervent lovers of The Friend, with a few readers citing it as their favourite book so far this year. They loved the confessional style, the literary exploration and the expression of grief, mourning and healing as portrayed through the narrator's relationship with Apollo the Great Dane. They found Nunez's book to be a wonderful examination of writing and the literary world, and of friendship and loss. They delighted in Nunez's sense of humour, and her honest and frank views on human behaviour.
Others were not fans of this book at all and could not bear the fractured narrative, the abundance of quotes, and the total lack of plot or direction. The most common criticism, (and a word that came up in almost every meeting) was that this book was 'self-indulgent'. These readers felt the author was trying to cram in every literary reference she could, while neglecting her own story and being overly harsh with her students. As one reader put it, it was 'utter literary snobbery'. A few readers found the competitive, parasitic and tortured portrayal of writers and the literary world was overly negative and cynical with one even fearing that it would affect her enjoyment of books in the future.
The majority of our readers remained firmly on the fence for this one, liking some aspects of the book and skimming over others. Some liked the parts about Apollo, others were more drawn to the parts about writing and writers. Most agreed that the book was not at all what they were expecting.
We agreed that this book more closely resembled an essay or a memoir than an actual novel, and spoke about the autobiographical nature of Nunez's writing. Many readers surmised that she must be a very lonesome soul, and that she most likely belongs to the group she calls 'strays' in the book. While most thought the narrator was definitely in love with the writer (the subject of her book), some felt it was likely just a deep and enduring friendship, albeit one that perhaps held her back in life. Readers were, for the most part, fairly damning in their appraisal of the deceased writer, saying he was misogynistic, narcissistic and generally quite manipulative. We pondered over how each of them benefited from the friendship, and most agreed that the writer found "an intelligent and adoring audience" in the narrator.
The sequence in which the narrator imagines a conversation with the writer left quite a few readers confused - had the dear departed actually died, or was the rest of the book an imagining? This interlude spoiled the book for some readers, and was beloved by others.
We spoke about changes in the publishing and literary world, and how this reflected on writers as a whole. Cultural appropriation, political correctness, social media, and self publishing have all changed how we view books, writers, and artists in general - and we discussed at length the consequences and benefits of such change.
One topic, however, was the absolute winner of the week - DOGS! Some readers wanted more dog, some readers wanted much less dog - some even professed a desire for more cat! We talked about how we love dogs, or how we loathe them, how they wheedle their way into our hearts, their loyalty, our fear, their temperament, sleeping issues, feeding issues, health issues, walking issues, slobber - if it related to our four legged friends, we covered it at some point over the course of the week!
It was a week filled with hilarious personal anecdotes from readers (mostly about pets - much to our delight), and spirited conversation about writers and their world. Whether you liked The Friend or not - or whether you couldn't quite decide how you felt - it certainly made for great discussion.