Book Review: 'The Friend' Wins 2018 National Book Award For Fiction
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"The Friend," by Sigrid Nunez, is a taut, tight, lyrical little novel on the enormous questions of love, loss and art and even the question of how to love an enormous dog - in this case, a Great Dane named Apollo who the unnamed narrator takes into her meager Manhattan apartment following the suicide of his master who was her former, teacher, mentor, lover and friend. "The Friend" just won the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction. And Sigrid Nunez, who's taught at Princeton, Amherst, The New School and other universities and is the author of eight acclaimed novels, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
SIGRID NUNEZ: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: And congratulations.
NUNEZ: Thank you.
SIMON: Apollo is a gift, although, at first, he doesn't appear to be so, from wife No. 3 of the writer who has taken his life. And why doesn't the narrator say, come on now, I live in a, you know, 200-square-foot apartment, I can't do this?
NUNEZ: Well, she does try to say that, and wife three will not accept that. And it becomes clear that no one else is going to take this dog. And so the narrator - actually, it's a 500-square-foot apartment. But also it's a place where in the lease, it is specified that no dogs are allowed.
NUNEZ: So that's an even more important issue.
SIMON: And day No. 1, she is observed walking this horse of a dog in front of the building and has an inauthentic explanation to the custodian as to why she's doing it.
NUNEZ: Yes. She lies. She says it's just temporary. But no one else will take the dog. And she just feels that she has to.
SIMON: Let me ask you about the writer who died. And even at the end of the novel, I'm not sure why he took his life because you actually think a jealous husband would have caught up with him first.
NUNEZ: That's quite true.
SIMON: Not a character for these times, is he?
SIMON: Or is he?
NUNEZ: Well - I, you know, he doesn't leave a note, so we can't say exactly why he takes his life. But there are many things that are troubling him. One of them is getting older and losing certain powers. He had a life as a very successful womanizer. That's not really possible anymore - not the way it once was. And that had a lot to do with his identity and his esteem.
He doesn't like what's happening in the world of teaching literature and writing. He doesn't like the changes there. He's very old-fashioned in his ideas.
And then - very important - he was never a famous writer. He was a successful writer. He had a career. But he is less and less successful. People are less and less interested in his work. And he's fully aware of that, too.
SIMON: Back to Apollo. He's in mourning, isn't he?
NUNEZ: Very much so.
SIMON: I've admired your line. The narrator muses - speaking of dogs - they don't commit suicide. They don't weep. But they can and do fall to pieces. That's what happens to Apollo, isn't it?
NUNEZ: Yes. I mean, the thing is, of course, when the dog loses his human partner - companion - you know, of course, that would be a great - that would be something that would cause the dog to grieve. But what was on my mind was the fact that you can't explain to the dog what happened to the person. The person just never comes home again.
NUNEZ: And so, you know, in the book where one of the - where wife three says to the narrator, you can't explain death to the - to a dog, so what am I supposed to do with this animal here? How am I supposed to deal with his grief? I can't. You should take the dog.
SIMON: Yeah. And does that put her in touch with something in her own mind and heart, too?
NUNEZ: Well, the two of them are there together. The narrator is alone. She doesn't have a family. She lives in the small apartment. She has a dog there. She's grieving. He's grieving. They don't know each other. He doesn't trust her. She's a little bit afraid of him. She feels terrible for him. She doesn't know what to do.
And together, they have to come through it. They have to get to know each other. They have to get to care about each other. She says somewhere what has to happen, he has to forget about his old master and fall in love with me, and then we can get somewhere.
And so they really do help each other. And, of course, they create this tremendous bond between them.
SIMON: Yeah. The ending of the book, which I won't give away, made me tear and smile. But then I recalled, Apollo is 5 years old.
NUNEZ: Yes. Well, by the end of the book, a little older - somewhat older.
SIMON: Yeah. And you note the life expectancy of Great Danes. And so no matter, you find happiness, but mortality is always over the horizon, isn't it?
NUNEZ: Yes. And I think that's hard for people, in general, who have dogs. You know, their lives, even when - I mean, even when longer than that of the Great Dane, are not equal to our lifespans. So you become very, very attached but knowing that it's only for a time, and that that time is fairly brief.
SIMON: Yeah. Does that make it more precious?
NUNEZ: Yes. And I think that - you know, I mean, it's certainly brief given how intense and meaningful people's relationships with their dogs are.
SIMON: May I ask - do you have an Apollo in your life?
NUNEZ: I don't. I am a cat person. My narrator is also...
SIMON: Well, but...
NUNEZ: ...A cat person.
SIMON: ...A cat can be an Apollo.
NUNEZ: (Laughter) Oh, I see what you mean. Right now, I do not. I had two cats who lived very long. And when I lost them one after the other quite close to each other - since then, I haven't been able to acquire another pet.
SIMON: Well, I hope that day is ahead.
NUNEZ: I hope so, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF TONY FURTADO SONG, "ASHES OF A MAN")
SIMON: Sigrid Nunez - her novel, which just won the National Book Award for Fiction, is "The Friend." Thank you so much for being with us.
NUNEZ: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.