“Animal Magic in Manhattan” is a review of “The Vulnerables” written by Sigrid Nunez.
The Vulnerables, iGrid Nunez’s latest novel, is heavily influenced by the words and works of others. The opening line is not from the protagonist, but from a distant memory. As the story progresses, there is a flood of quotes from authors such as Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. In one short passage, we see references to Sylvia Plath, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Elizabeth Bishop.
Nunez is a writer who is well-versed in literature and often draws inspiration from her favorite authors. Her characters, who often resemble Nunez herself, often pause to contemplate and seek guidance from these writers. This creates a thoughtful and quirky tone to her writing. However, in this particular work, there is a subtle undertone of anxiety present. The quotes selected by the characters highlight the struggle of starting and the absence of important details. This raises the question of whether the narrator is actively searching for a topic or avoiding it out of nervousness. As the story progresses, we begin to understand what the narrator has been trying to convey.
On certain occasions, I would spend a significant amount of time outside, sometimes up to three or four hours. I would follow a specific route, going from one park to another, as that is where I could find flowers. In the past, I would often find solace in observing young children playing in the playgrounds, or simply listening to their cheerful voices while sitting on a nearby bench. However, in these uncertain times, I was unable to focus on reading like I normally would. My attention was solely captured by the news, even though I wished I could ignore it. It seemed like we were all forced into a childlike state, and the consequences for breaking the rules were severe.
The current arrival has transformed our shared traumatic experience, altering what came before. The abundance of references and quotes was a way to cope with the situation: an attempt to find significance in what had already been labeled; a plea for focus that has now been disrupted.
Nunez’s novel The Friend, which won the 2018 National Book Award, features an adopted dog who offers solace and a link to the deceased. In The Vulnerables, a parrot serves as a crucial link to life. When a wealthy acquaintance is stranded overseas and their housesitter disappears, the narrator begins visiting daily to care for the bird in its fancy Manhattan home. Eventually, she moves in permanently, remarking on the luxurious building and staff solely dedicated to her and the small bird.
This is a situation of low risk and high privilege. There are no critically ill patients or bodies lining the streets, just the presence of a pandemic. In the grand scheme of a global crisis, should we be concerned about the well-being of a writer living in a luxurious penthouse with a pet parrot?
Such is Nunez’s great talent: she can make us care about anything. As with the novels of Rachel Cusk or Emmanuel Carrère, the “auto” in autofiction feels inadequate. These are novels that give gracious space to the lives of others. In Nunez’s work especially, the concerns of the moment are rendered not as clumsy drama, but as living subjects of conversation; sites of intimacy and disagreement. Listening as the narrator and her friends tackle the perennial subject of appalling male behaviour, we are drawn by the conversation’s range not towards judgment, but productive tension. “I can’t say how many stories I now see,” says a publisher friend, “that deal seriously with the question of how we’d all be better off in a world without men”.
These thoughtful and expansive discussions not only allow for subtlety, but also reveal the narrator’s preferred approach to dealing with life’s challenges: through the lens of ideas. It’s a skill, but also a potential weakness, as when reality intrudes, the narrator’s contemplative nature may falter. For example, when she absentmindedly leans on the counter while buying coffee after her usual walk, she is sharply reprimanded by the barista. This shocks her and she stands on the street crying, wondering why such a small thing caused such a strong reaction. She considers that perhaps the barista’s anger stems from being one of the people who must work while others stay safe at home. The narrator concludes that it’s difficult to understand people’s behavior these days and decides not to even try.
In these moments, we are prompted to reevaluate the meaning of the initial quote barrage. As Nunez writes in The Friend, aren’t we constantly reminded that reading enhances our empathy? The protagonist is torn between empathy and doubt. She logically understands why someone in a cafe may be uneasy about physical closeness. However, she manages to talk herself out of this knowledge and convinces herself that understanding is unattainable. While she possesses a vast amount of knowledge, we also witness its limitations.
The intense reality of new experiences can disrupt the comfort of familiarity and take on a physical form. The previous housesitter unexpectedly returns and disrupts the narrator’s solitude. He is rumored to be unstable and initially makes the narrator feel unsafe, but as he settles in, the narrator becomes annoyed. The young man’s confidence and connection with the bird represent the arrival of life rather than the threat of death. When the moment of understanding finally arrives, it is not through literature or intellect, but rather a cannabis edible that eases the tension and allows for a loosening of rationality and shedding of certain aspects of the self, a common theme in Nunez’s writing when encountering animals.
Are the things we are aware of truly beneficial to us? Does the literature we cherish have any relevance when our world is in turmoil? Nunez’s uncertainty seems essential and worthwhile. It is remarkable that her writing, filled with doubt, still manages to reassure us and, as the novel concludes with a surprisingly optimistic and comforting last line, leaves us feeling like we have been assisted.
Sigrid Nunez’s book, The Vulnerables, is released by Virago at a price of £16.99. To help the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase your own copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional delivery fees may apply.