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Taking flight: ‘The Vulnerables’ reviewed

Sigrid Nunez’s lockdown-set novel is one of the best explorations of that time so far
February 27, 2024
The Vulnerables
Sigrid Nunez (RRP: £16.99)
Buy on Bookshop.org
Buy on Bookshop.org

The Vulnerables—as its title hints—is the American writer Sigrid Nunez’s contribution to the swelling cohort of novels that deal with life under lockdown. Her setting is Manhattan in early 2020 and her narrator is an older woman writer—old enough to be considered a “vulnerable”—who finds herself confined with two unlikely flatmates: an angry young college dropout to whom she assigns the moniker “Vetch”, and an affable but narcissistic green-plumed parrot named Eureka. “He really likes to strut his stuff,” the macaw’s owner tells the narrator. “He’s seen himself in the mirror, and he knows how gorgeous he is.”

The unnamed narrator makes daily visits to this friend-of-a-friend’s empty apartment to feed and check in on their beloved pet bird while his owners are stuck in California. When another friend—a pulmonologist who’s volunteering her services at one of the city’s hospitals—needs somewhere to stay, it makes sense for the narrator to offer up her own compact flat and move in with Eureka. As it happens, though, not long after her arrival, another house guest appears: the son of a couple of Eureka’s owners’ friends, who himself had been caring for the bird before he fled New York to quarantine with his parents in Vermont. Having had more than enough of their company, he’s now made his way back to the city. The narrator isn’t exactly happy to find this unexpected guest foisted upon her, but the apartment is a large one—“the collision of great imagination, great taste and a whole lot of money”—and these are “crazy” times.

Though this pair shares a few scattered episodes of intimacy—namely when getting stoned together—Nunez is far too interesting a writer to fall back on the tired trope of the blossoming of an incongruous friendship. In fact, plot is in many ways the least of her concerns. Descriptions of the narrator’s limited daily activities—walks around the now “lifeless streets” of the local neighbourhood; her interactions with Eureka and Vetch; observations about the “bizarreries of lockdown life”—are interspersed with extensive memories from her past. Some of these are more recent, such as a reunion dinner with friends following the funeral of one of their group. Others, meanwhile, bubble up to the surface of her mind from years before: the recollection, for example, of the awkwardness of a Valentine’s Day Brownie troop visit to a nursing home back when she was a child. “Those people – holy moly, what had happened to them? What calamity had bleached and bent and shriveled them?” the narrator wondered at the time, creeped out by the various indignities of old age on display: “The warbly voices, the shakes, the drool, the munching mouths.” The short-sightedness of youth! Interwoven with these are rangier meditations on art, the human condition and the state of the modern world. 

If I’m making the novel sound in any way offputtingly erudite, I’m doing it a gross disservice. No one could describe Nunez as a sentimental writer, but there is an inviting warmth to her narrator’s voice. Reading The Vulnerables feels like having a conversation with a thoughtful, charming friend—someone you always look forward to spending time with, no matter what the occasion or the topic under discussion. And, as will be immediately obvious to fans of Nunez’s most recent work, this novel is a continuation of the project she began with The Friend (2018) and its follow-up, What Are You Going Through (2020), all three of which are written in the same collage-like style and narrated by what sounds like the same witty, reflective female voice.

Prior to this, between 1995 and 2011, Nunez published six novels and a memoir—Sempre Susan, about living with Susan Sontag and her son David Rieff, whom Nunez was dating at the time—all of which, although not what we might describe as exactly popular, were met with critical approbation. The release of The Friend, however, was a different story. An unexpected bestseller, it also won the National Book Award, its uncluttered, unshowy prose and poignant narrative capturing attention far and wide. Its story is a simple one; that of a New York-based writer of advancing years and a small apartment who inherits her recently deceased one-time mentor and long-time friend’s Great Dane, Apollo. Nunez, incidentally, is one of those rare writers who represents the relationship between animals and humans with uncanny perception. Her third novel, Mitz (1998), is a fictionalised observation of the innermost workings of the Bloomsbury Group as seen through the eyes of Leonard Woolf’s pet marmoset—itself inspired by Virginia Woolf’s equally imaginative biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet dog, Flush

The Friend’s moving portrait of woman and dog, unexpected companions in grief, was complemented by more essayistic episodes, literary allusions and anecdotes. Its sequel in all but name, What Are You Going Through—in which a woman agrees to support her terminally ill friend through the last days of her life—was written in the same voice and again combined minimal plot (this time, there’s the involvement of a pet cat) and meandering musings. Now, with The Vulnerables, Nunez has completed what feels like, if not strictly a trilogy, three works that can be read as a triptych addressing loss, grief and love.

The first great Covid novel? Nunez comes closer to this achievement than most

Although just as successful in the two earlier novels, Nunez’s episodic, meditative approach feels acutely appropriate for a novel that captures the inertia of lockdown; the plotlessness mirroring the feeling of being unmoored from reality that many of us relatively comfortably off, nonessential workers had during the months we were under house arrest. “Everyone’s having to adjust,” a friend tells the narrator when the latter complains about the intrusion of Vetch in her life, “to make it up as they go along”, a lived experience that’s seemingly mimicked by the structure of this novel: Nunez writes as if instinctively: each of her narrator’s thoughts naturally leading to the next; a conversation with someone in the present triggering a memory from her past. And compared to the losses explored in both The Friend and What Are You Going Through—each of which is specific and intimate—the broader circumstances here force the narrator to expand the scope of her philosophical and artistic peregrinations.

“The first great Covid novel” is a term that’s been thrown around a little too eagerly these past couple of years, but the truth is that, with The Vulnerables, Nunez comes closer to this achievement than most. As she has her narrator hypothesise towards the end of the book, “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.” The Vulnerables is an urgent and original piece of fiction. It’s a book that feels beautifully, if fragilely, alive; like a bird poised on the brink of flight.