It’s Not Only Human Stories Worth Telling: Sigrid Nunez’s Animal Novels

Why are animals so central to Sigrid Nunez’s thinking about the status of fiction?

After several uncertain weeks this fall, my cat died. Her little life was bracketed by two crises that she was not aware of. I adopted her—a sleek, shy gray adolescent—at the beginning of the painfully lonely and economically disastrous year I first went on the academic job market. Her friendship endured several years of precarity, structured by institutional demands that seemed hostile to security and love. I moved her across the country three times. She liked to lie with her face buried in my knees while I worked. This combination—endless pages, small cat friend—felt just sustaining enough.

The decline of her life coincided with the pandemic. Whereas once my vulnerability created isolation, now isolation was supposed to insulate me from vulnerability. My cat resigned herself to the constant presence of my small children. She permitted their overly enthusiastic affection, hanging out by the oven to warm herself in the very heart of domestic disorder. She grew frail, and her medications tinged her sweet-smelling fur a strange color. But giving her care, unlike the thousand other frantic obligations of stay-at-home life, involved no sense of futility. Many times daily, I helped her as well as I could under the fraying circumstances while awaiting the government protections I was desperate for.

When she was nearing the end, I was haunted by an anecdote from Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Friend (2019), in which the narrator, about to have her aging cat euthanized, finds the cat suddenly alert, looking up at her as if to say, “I didn’t say I wanted you to kill me, I said I wanted you to make me feel better.” I was terrified that something similar would happen to us—that I would not know what help meant when she asked for it, would be wrong about what she needed when. My cat did ask for help, in the end, and I think I did understand. But I continue to turn to Nunez’s work to understand how I heard my friend and what the effort to respond to this small-scale crisis meant, especially in a time when suffering had seemed to reach its outer limits.

In Sigrid Nunez’s fiction, no creatures are more vulnerable than the animals her narrators love. In her recent, high-profile trilogy of sorts, each novel has its own central animal: a dog in The Friend (2019), a cat in What Are You Going Through (2020), and a parrot in The Vulnerables (2023). Though loving an animal can never redress the unsolvable problems her narrators face—pervasive sexual violence, the deaths of close human friends, the pandemic—pets are also never a sentimental distraction. Loving animals is nothing to be embarrassed about; their care is, as her most recent narrator puts it, “one of the few things that … didn’t have me asking myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

A novel set in the “uncertain spring” of April 2020, The Vulnerables seems to focus on a distinctively human dilemma: how to isolate without losing it, and how to inhabit the uncertainty of when and how the isolation will end. The title embraces the designation of people over the age of 65, including Nunez’s narrator, as “vulnerable.” But like in her previous novels, that category extends much further, especially because an animal is present: challenging, loving, needy, and perceptive.

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Why are animals so central to Nunez’s thinking about the status of fiction? In some of her work, attending to another’s vulnerability transcends species and prompts storytelling. In What Are You Going Through, the narrator briefly encounters a talkative cat at an AirBnB while visiting a friend who, suffering from terminal cancer, is planning suicide. The novel dramatizes the difficult effort to understand someone else’s private experiences, and it opens with an epigraph from Simone Weil—“The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him, ‘What are you going through?’” The question implies the paramount importance of attention to others’ afflictions. Nunez uses a light touch in drawing on the work of this stringent French philosopher, but Weil’s impact is evident everywhere. Weil understands vulnerability and affliction to be the basis of our existence as creatures in the world, and the only useful response to be “complete attention.” This demands letting go of the self and becoming fully receptive to another, but “the capacity to give attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”

In Nunez’s novel, such contemplative and self-effacing attunement is difficult for the narrator to achieve; even the effort is hard for her to tolerate. But one night, the cat jumps into her lap to tell his life story: “I had a decent home, the cat said, his words muffled by the purr but still clear.” Although the narrator has not asked him Weil’s question, the cat answers it, describing his exposure to human violence on the street and affirming the love of his adoptive human, his “second mother.” The narrator listens, reacting appreciatively: “He told many other stories that night—he was a real Scheherazade, that cat.” What Are You Going Through never questions why the cat can speak to the narrator or highlights the moment as an unexpected violation of the novel’s overall realism. In all his fictionality, the cat models one of Nunez’s core values: he speaks to ubiquitous vulnerability on a difficult night, and in doing so sustains the narrator’s intense attention, preparing her for future acts attuned to the needs of her dying friend.

Across nearly all of Nunez’s work, being a human is marked by sustained caretaking for some other creature, with significant consequences for the author’s understanding of the project of fiction writing itself. (See, for instance, Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, her 1998 portrait of the careers of Leonard and Virginia Woolf through the lens of their unusual pet.) Many of her narrators present the way animals are treated as an index of ethical behavior, but more recently her attention to their vulnerability has become less reactive and more foundational. In For Rouenna (2001), a novel about a woman who served as a nurse in Vietnam, the antiwar narrator strives to tell a story about American culture’s abandonment of the war’s participants. Along the way, she notes deeply troubling connections between war, masculinity, and casual violence against animals. She hears a speaker at an antiwar rally tell the crowd, “If you want to know why things like My Lai happen, just go out there and pick ten men at random and ask them whether they have ever in their lives tortured or killed a helpless animal just for fun.” So she decides to experiment on men of her acquaintance. The results:

             “It was just a turtle.”

“Do bullfrogs count?”

“Of course. I’m a hunter.”

“See, my brother caught this mouse …”

“Is it okay if I don’t answer?”

She notes quietly, “I quit before I reached ten.” Later, when she asks a former lover the same question, she is pleased to report that “his horror is genuine,” until, that is, “when we have turned to walk back to the house, he says, ‘Now, you said animal, right? Like, not including insects.’” The shift of topic that follows screams silent disgust.

The Friend, too, “balks at domination.” It is in this novel that animal love first becomes a central, sustaining relationship that offers an alternative to the structural problems that shape human interactions, political as well as sexual. The book opens with the narrator in endless mourning for a dead human friend, a writer who has committed suicide in part due to his sexual indiscretions. Tasked with caring for his dog, she very reluctantly agrees. The dog, a Great Dane, is burdensome, enormous, and grieving. But the novel carefully investigates their shared bereavement through short episodes that evoke the narrator’s refusal to exercise too much power. Her aversion to domination even extends to the narrative style. She has little interest in revealing much of herself beyond her growing love for her new pet, and his for her. The narrator composes miniature research essays, some about dogs, that are neither impersonal nor confessional; their tone is curious, understated, slightly evasive, but never cold. Rather than see arguments through to their conclusions, she leaves images and ideas hanging, dallying with facts inside a fiction, refusing a fuller line of mastery, evoking both curiosity about others and sadness at the many kinds of suffering, cruelty, and unkindness that concern her. She exhibits none of the intellectual satisfaction that would make her definitively superior to any of these conditions—nothing that would make her in any way superior to the dog she observes.

In The Vulnerables, the narrator also happens into a relationship with an animal. She becomes part of an unlikely pandemic pod in the luxurious flat of a friend of a friend, where she cares for a parrot, Eureka, “a highly intelligent and sociable breed that needed lots of attention.” When Eureka’s Gen-Z birdsitter leaves the gig unexpectedly, the narrator agrees to help, first visiting every day and later moving in when she offers her own apartment to an ER doctor. Already a bird lover, she finds solace in caring for Eureka, even if it’s marked as a trite comfort: “A cure for many ills, it’s been called. For the alleviation of stress and anxiety; for comfort in mourning, sadness, and loss: find someone who needs your help.”

It’s hard at first. The narrator, who admires birds, notes, “He screamed the first time he saw me. And given that a parrot screaming is a parrot in distress, this was hardly a promising introduction. … I was a stranger, after all, not one of his flock.” As time goes by, he relaxes, and she finds it “poignant” to see him having fun. She watches him watching her, finds evidence that he is happy, and worries that “he was happy that he’d succeeded in making me happy.” Her knowledge of Eureka’s state of mind is reverent but always speculative, somewhere between fact and fiction. A long chapter right in the middle of the book inspired by trying to understand him pushes the boundaries of “fiction” even further by offering an extended review of the documentary film My Octopus Teacher (2020), in which closely documenting the life of an octopus leads the filmmaker to what the narrator calls “rejuvenation” and even “salvation.” Her appreciation of the film allows her to assess cultural attitudes toward “affinity with other living beings” broadly but also avoid fully understanding her own affinity with this particular one.

Compared to the other animals in the trilogy, Eureka remains the least known. He’s certainly the least mammalian, perhaps not a coincidence. But even so, being with him in all his strangeness and attending to his needs prompts her to keep writing and keep waiting for whatever might emerge. As Weil notes, “There is a way of waiting, when we are writing, for the right word to come of itself at the end of our pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words.” If Nunez’s narrator does not quite have the right words yet for loving Eureka, she remains open, learning slowly how to see him.

Though loving an animal can never redress the unsolvable problems her narrators face—pervasive sexual violence, the deaths of close human friends, the pandemic—pets are also never a sentimental distraction.

All is well enough in social isolation. But the young man who departed abruptly returns. The narrator is unsettled, not only by the added COVID exposure but also by his easier intimacy with Eureka as he carries the bird on his shoulder through the apartment. Compared to The Friend, The Vulnerables suggests less potential for interspecies intimacy to offer personal transformation, despite the lessons of the octopus teacher. If anyone gets “salvation” out of caring for Eureka, it’s not the narrator but the housemate. The novel opens with some consideration of whether positive representations of masculinity are possible anymore, and following this theme, the housemate—she gives him the purposely unattractive nickname “Vetch”—struggles with his privilege and lack of independence, facing serious mental health challenges. But Vetch finds a new source of love in Eureka and takes the bird with him to a new living space, where he can let the parrot’s wings grow out and, perhaps, find a way out of masculine domination. The narrator, left behind, grieves: “That’s wonderful, I said, my heart breaking. And watched them go: out of my life, out of my novel.”

Denied the comfort Vetch receives, the narrator is left wondering whether novels should continue to be written when the object of attentiveness is no longer there to spur the process. What stories are there to tell that aren’t of knowledge gained, solace found? After this loss, the narrator seems to let herself go out of the novel too. The fiction that held space for affirmative attention to vulnerability doesn’t last, and the short section that follows feels more like a series of notes than a representation of a person’s lived experience of the pandemic.

The Vulnerables struggles with the category of fiction, while emphasizing more than ever the creaturely vulnerability of being a human (and the not that much loftier notion, “being human”). Toward the end, the narrator muses about the death of the novel: “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.” But it’s clearly not only human stories that are worth telling. The narrator never knows what her animal friend is really thinking, although she curates considerable research from studies of animal cognition and the cultural history of petkeeping to try to show it. There’s always something a little fictional about what it’s like to think you truly know an animal, but also something indisputably true about the creature’s presence and its needs. This starts to seem equally true of the human narrator, who remains in some ways the “stranger” she appeared in Eureka’s eyes—she is perhaps Nunez’s most reticent, least revealing protagonist. She turns away from herself and back toward the world even as she returns to isolation; in her vulnerability, she is not and never was alone. In Nunez’s work, wondering and careful attention to an animal’s life endures beyond questions of fact and fiction.

Caring for my cat did not transform me, though I miss her every day. Writing about her now, nonetheless, is a way of protecting of my ability to attend, a kind of vaccination. What this attention ultimately offers is not a protection from vulnerability but instead, a source of creative waiting and making that values uncertainty at times when we are most inclined to deny it. icon

This article was commissioned by Tara K. Menon.

Featured image: Man and his trusty dog companion in autumn woods. Photograph by David Gabrić / Unsplash (CC by Unsplash License).