What WE Are Going Through: A Literary Journey Into, Through And Past Loss

“Every Day We Get More Illegal,” a poetry anthology by former US poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, was reviewed by me last summer. Because of how common it is for individuals to struggle with poetry — comprehending it, appreciating it, even wanting to read it — I began that review with a frame for thinking about poetry.

This is something I blame on high school English; my senior year English class was fantastic and sowed the roots of my love of reading (and writing) novels, but it was the exception. Almost no one I know remembers their English lesson fondly; they left with either a lingering fear of breaching grammar rules or a hate for all things reading and writing, rather than adoring poetry or storytelling. This is how our society maintains a skewed perception of poetry and literature.

I’ll add a frame here, too, because Sigrid Nunez’s recent novel, “What Are You Going Through,” has numerous parallels to poetry: Literary fiction, as opposed to “genre” fiction, is what I’m talking about. “It’s dull,” “where’s the story?” are common reactions to literary fiction in my experience. or “I’m not sure what the point is.”

Neither genre fiction nor literary fiction are superior, but approaching literary fiction with genre assumptions will most likely leave readers disappointed. Romance, science fiction, and westerns are examples of genre fiction that follow specific patterns and are plot-driven. Literary fiction is about the human condition, is frequently darker, and contains hazy tale lines weaved together in ways that maintain ambiguity and fail to resolve (much like life, no?).

“What Are You Going Through,” a collection of comments that reads almost like nonfiction, is a classic example of literary fiction. The novel is told by a woman whose terminally sick friend requests assistance in dying, and it evolves into a mash-up of familiar novels, movies, and other media, as well as real-life-like lectures.

13 Books by Filipino Authors You Should Be Reading - Get Literary

The book is a jumble of tangents, recitations of conversations and encounters the narrator has had throughout the course of her life. This framework was a fantastic method to replicate the distance most of us automatically attempt to maintain from themes such as death and dying in our everyday lives, even though it was often gloomy and sometimes controversial.

Others with controversial beliefs, I’m sure, would agree, such as when the narrator doubts the morality of having children; she points out that such concerns have a long history in human history and are about more than just the state of the planet. As a result, “What Are You Going Through” performed what excellent writing is meant to do — and, I would argue, is the major reason we read: Make it clear to the reader that they are being noticed and that they are not alone.

“For perhaps the first time in history, young envy the elderly,” was the most heartbreaking statement in the entire book, and it still haunts me. Of course, that thought may not be universally true, but for the first time, the existential agony I’ve had since I was a child seemed completely validated. This is precisely what literature is designed to accomplish.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is how real — and, gasp! dislikeable! — the female protagonists are. Where careful politeness and “empathy” are expected of women, there is an honesty and rawness. It’s difficult to follow sections of “What Are You Going Through” until you slow down and reread them.

It’s unclear whether the pacing is deliberate, but it nonetheless serves as another literary mirror to the act and art of escorting a friend through the last few years of their life.

For instance, here’s my take on Nunez’s slow-down-here sections: It wasn’t so much the narrator’s meandering from 20-year-old conversations to what she imagines the two people in the café window are talking about now to a barely related passage in a book the narrator’s dying friend told her about that was perplexing; the reader learns to follow those musings as the book progresses.

What was more perplexing than instructive was the inconsistent use of another literary device: quotation marks. Nunez was seeking to blur the boundaries between who said what to whom when and how people recall who said what to whom when; in the end, I was not as clear as I would have liked to be regarding what was actually spoken versus what was thought and to whom by whom as a literary writer.

“What Are You Going Through” is for you, especially if you don’t want to go through what you’re going through alone, if you feel alone in how much you meditate on mortality in a society that compulsively avoids debates of any substance about what it means that life ends.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.