Day by Michael Cunningham; The Vulnerables by Sigrid Nunez review – tales from the Covid era
The events of September 11 did not seem like distant history when Martin Amis published The Last Days of Muhammad Atta in 2006 or when Don DeLillo’s Falling Man was released in 2007. However, the start of the pandemic in spring 2020 already feels like ancient history, especially as a subject for fiction. This is in part because authors were quick to respond, with works from Ali Smith, Sally Rooney, Elizabeth Strout, and others. It is also because fictionalizing these events does not require the boldness Amis displayed when delving into the mind of a hijacker; we have all experienced Covid firsthand. Do we want to revisit the beginning once again?
According to the authors of two recent novels set in New York during this time period, the narratives take different approaches. In Day, written by Michael Cunningham (author of the Pulitzer-winning novel The Hours), a married couple in their middle age experiences regular conflicts over the course of three consecutive Aprils, from 2019 to 2021. Dan’s aspirations of being a rock star have been replaced by taking care of the household, while Isabel, a magazine editor, daydreams about leaving her life behind to work as a waitress at a diner. Their two children, 10-year-old Nathan and five-year-old Violet, are caught in the middle, along with Isabel’s brother and tenant, Robbie, who helps out with the kids but ends up getting kicked out when Dan and Isabel want a larger home.
Family tensions, which were already high due to each person feeling unfulfilled in their desires, intensify when the pandemic arrives. This is when we realize the significance of one character’s underlying health issue, which was mentioned earlier on. Cunningham usually has a lighter touch, as shown when Isabel warms up to Dan’s newfound happiness, but later on we learn the cause (cocaine) through Dan’s perspective. While the novel is always compassionate and understanding, it lacks humor. Instead, there is a sense of worry about whether these characters are even deserving of attention. Isabel dismisses her problems as “unimportant… problems of a privileged white woman,” while Dan wonders if his son appreciates all that has been given to him, including his race, health, and intelligence. He questions if his son understands that only a small percentage of 10-year-old boys have such privileges.
The unspoken question becomes more burdensome when Nathan’s personal challenges become the focus in the intense third part of the story. A Covid-related death leads to painful uncertainty about the origin of the infection. Ultimately, the book reveals itself as a nuanced depiction of the emotional and mental struggles that can be inherited through generations when guilt dictates political decisions rather than taking action.
Cunningham’s incorporation of the virus as a catalyst for familial conflicts, reminiscent of the structure often seen in post-9/11 literature, could be viewed as a contrived and simplistic approach that contrasts with the more meandering and conversational style of Sigrid Nunez’s novels, such as The Friend and What You Are Going Through. These books, which explore themes of suicide and euthanasia, serve as malleable containers for the complexities of the human mind.
In The Vulnerables, which takes place in New York during the spring of 2020, the author incorporates the narrative structure to fit the current Covid era. A Nunez-esque writer finds herself taking care of a friend’s pet parrot while they are stuck in lockdown and unable to return home. The previous housesitter, a young college dropout with a history of mental illness, suddenly left and now the narrator must navigate a relationship with this unexpected roommate amidst the fear of catching the virus. However, the novel’s main focus is on the narrator’s stream of consciousness as she ponders various topics such as a friend who passed away from a brain tumor, the convention of not starting a novel with a description of the weather, and the reliability of Joan Didion.
Nunez skillfully portrays an unlikely connection between her central characters, who are facing the challenges of isolation due to the pandemic. Her all-encompassing title reflects the common struggles faced by people of all ages. The reading experience is intimate and engrossing, although occasionally lacking in emotion due to its nonfictional tone. While there are moments of suspense, such as when the narrator is threatened by a cyclist while on a walk, there are also instances where the narrative seems out of place in a novel, such as a four-page reflection on a documentary film. Towards the end of the novel, when tension is expected, the narrator instead lists search results for trivial topics while sitting six feet apart from her fellow housesitter.
A novel can be whatever it wants to be, but you sense special pleading for Nunez’s artistic choices when the narrator declares: “Growing consensus: the traditional novel has lost its place as the major genre of our time… Perhaps what is wanted in our own dark anti-truth times, with all our blatant hypocrisy and the growing use of story as a means to distort and obscure reality, is a literature of personal history and reflection: direct, authentic, scrupulous about fact.”
Can Trump be blamed for anything else besides the increase in anti-novelistic autofiction? After reading these books side by side, I received numerous notifications and comments.
Striving to find a balance between dramatic storytelling and contemplative reflection, navigating between the rigid structure of a plot and the free-flowing nature of personal essays.
The novel “Day” by Michael Cunningham is released by 4th Estate for the price of £16.99. To show your support for the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional charges for delivery may apply.