The Vulnerables
by Sigrid Nunez

In her writing, Sigrid Nunez comes across as attentive and observant and self-contained. She has affairs with men, but she never settles down with one, or hasn’t yet.) And her books are never romances. The Vulnerables is a COVID novel, so long as it is understood that COVID is a synonym for that dreadful and unnecessary word, “lockdown.” People huddle in their homes, going crazy; they’re obsessed with their screens partly out of habit and partly because the pandemic has disturbed their attention spans.

For a while, during the same time, I found myself unable to read. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to write again — just one of the many uncertainties of that spring. (Not a writer I know who didn’t experience the same.)

It’s all very familiar, or perhaps familiar to me because from the first it has sounded alien; that’s not what I went through. I was already accustomed to being at home all day, leading pretty much the life that I am still leading. It was only a pleasure to have my late wife at home, too, although she didn’t care for it quite so much. I am sure that there are other people who, like me, had atypical experiences of the pandemic. But I’ve given up expecting to read about them. COVID has become a cliché; nobody has anything new to say about it. Not even Nunez.

“Lockdown” — the term a violent, and almost criminal overstatement — is simply the backdrop, the particular dropcloth of catastrophism in the background. (As is, somehow, Trump. It seems that Trump will be forever associated with it, at least among those who think something worse than a political troublemaker.) Because the chapters are not numbered, or even titled, it’s difficult to say just what goes on in the foreground, which is characterized by a ruminative drift. There are three stories in the first part of the novel, each longer than the preceding one. The first story is really just an anecdote, and like all childhood anecdotes it ends up wondering what ever happened to so-and-so. The second story is about a college classmate, to whom we are introduced at her funeral. The narrative backtracks, necessarily, but after a while the subject changes, via a mutual friend, to the present day, where we find Nunez’s fictional self babysitting a parrot. As she demonstrated in The Friend, Nunez is very, very good with other people’s pets. Whereas in The Friend she brought a Great Dane to live in her apartment, however, taking care of Eureka the parrot requires moving into a (COVID-vacated) apartment where the bird has a special room all to himself.

After an interlude, this third story is resumed, and it ends when Eureka is taken away by the boy who was supposed to be his baby-sitter in the first place. (The new location is a loft, in which Eureka can actually fly, once his clipped wings grow back.) And that’s that, so far as prolonged narrative chains go. There are many discursions, especially into the matter of writing, teaching writing, remarks of famous writers, &c.  A friend of mine who read the book twice, and who interviewed Nunez for Vanity Fair, calls it “a prose exercise.” Which is fair, as long as it’s understood that the prose is excellent. Think of a pianist improvising. Contemporaries claimed that Mozart’s improvisations were miraculous in the moment, but none was ever written down. Nunez’s book has been written down. Alas, like all improvisations, it cannot be meaningfully excerpted for the purposes of review. You’ll just have to take my word for it that The Vulnerables is a very good read. I am not sure why Nunez calls her book a novel — which she does not only on the dust jacket but several times within the text itself — but perhaps that’s part of the exercise.