Fiction recommended: The Vulnerables (2023, Sigrid Nunez)

This novel was a very pleasant surprise. It was a Christmas gift, and the first time I heard of the either the book or it’s author. (Thank you, Marsena and Dan!) I will now need to read more of Nunez’s work, starting, I expect with The Friend (2018), which won the National Book Award.

The Vulnerables is set in the opening weeks of the pandemic. A middle-aged writer stays in a friend’s apartment to care for a lively macaw named Eureka. Then completely unexpectedly, the former caregiver of the parrot shows up to stay as well, a younger, attractive, annoying man. So, that’s the setting, a woman, a man, and a bird under COVID lockdown. It’s the perfect imperfect setting of ordinary life to incite the single female narrator to reflect on the questions of life, big and small. She is vulnerable, being older with COVID rampaging, but as we read, we are reminded that ultimately, we are all vulnerable, and not just from COVID, even when we don’t realize it or decide to ignore it.

What drew me in was the ongoing internal meditation, trains of thought—whether witty, or random, or annoyed, or significant—that followed odd mental connections that came to mind as she moved from one thought to another. The Vulnerables is one of those rare books where the inner life and musings of the main character take precedence over plot and action.

The Vulnerables captures that sense of pandemic plotlessness through its static assemblages: anecdotes, feelings, quotes, fears, gripes, slogans, last words, movie trailers, metaphors, “things a person with a cell phone might have been tempted to snap and share.” The novel immerses us in this collection, guiding us through meandering thoughts that make no claim to narrative payoff. [Maisie Wiltshire-Gordon in L.A. Review of Books; November 7, 2023]

We all know how our mind flits from subject to subject, perhaps tenuously related, perhaps not, so that after a few minutes the conversation is far afield from where it started. Or perhaps it circles around to where it started though nobody could reconstruct the path later. The Vulnerables made me aware of that inner reality in a new way. Sometimes the connections are attempts to hide, sometimes they yield novel insights; sometimes they are just for fun.

Nunez raises serious questions about writing, the value of work, how the pandemic transformed relationships and jobs and communities, the serendipitous reasons for joy, coping in a world where choices are more limited than usual and though we’ve always been vulnerable to suffering and disease and death, we are suddenly made acutely aware of it. It’s also about unwelcome interruptions, people in our lives whom we didn’t invite, and finding one’s way when life is uncertain.

Nunez doesn’t provide answers for all this, which is a relief. She brings us creatively into the life of people, who, like us are vulnerable, allowing us to reflect on possible answers for ourselves.

Novel recommended: The Vulnerables by Sigrid Nunez (New York, NY: Riverhead Books; 2023) 242 pages.

Photo credit: By author with his iPhone; photo of Sigrid Nunez on laptop screen.