Naked with Nunez


Have I ever been so happy to have caught a cold? Well, let’s not go too far in the pursuit of good writing, but I will say that had I not worn myself thin with Stewart’s graduation and slaved over cake and pie making for the celebration, I might not have finished The Naked Sleeper, Sigrid Nunez’s second and most satisfying novel. Perhaps Nona, the story’s protagonist, would attest to the stress piled on by brief interactions with “the ex,” but like Nona’s various places d’angst, it was suppression of interior torment not the difficulties themselves that brought on my disease.

 

Howsoever, I was glad, forty pages in to fall ill, to wrap my legs and torso in a fleecy blanket and to settle into my big leather chair – the one I have sat in maybe six hours total in ten years – to spend healing time with Nona, her latently gay, cross-country lover, Loren, and, Roy, her all-to-decent husband. No Nunez novel, though, would be complete without the odd-ball mother, Rosalind in this incarnation, and stories of absent, failed fathers, in Sleeper an in-the-closet, misunderstood, tormented painter. For over a week prior, I had been stuck on Rosalind and didn’t want to know more. Viruses pushed me over the edge of page 40, and I glided home that week on what Time had called “some impressively elegant writing.”(By way of complaint: All my writing buddies tell me to drop most adjectives and to forget about adverbs altogether. That rule obviously does not append itself to critics, especially the impressively elegant ones).

 

What drew me in to this second novel? Why is it Nunez’s best? Characters. I liked the characters, though not always. These were different in that they grew – perhaps out of sight of the reader much of the time – and eventually came to terms with the life they chose.

 

First, why isn’t this true of the character’s in A Feather on the Breath of God and The Last of Her Kind? Now, both these stories are first person, told by the female protagonist. Though both women progress in their New York lives, each carries with her an emptiness at her core, especially notable in George’s final words of The Last, “Choose me,” which echo the sentiments of each of the three protagonists (adding Nona to the pair). Each depends on being wanted by a man. Nothing strange there except being a push-over always violates the woman’s self-worth and often courts or brings about disaster as well as love’s agony.

Note: In Feather the narrator’s affair with her Russian-émigré student brings an otherwise innocent teacher within a criminal orbit. Like most affairs it is wrong: The immigrant wife objects. The liason violates student/teacher protocol. His practice and history as a pimp denigrates her character – it is a straw finally discovered and piled atop an already lugubrious (and obvious) load of wrong.

In The Last of Her Kind, George(tte) has little use for a man other than rut and procreation until she falls in love. It is an affair only because it is hidden. The lovers are both single, but the potential for damage, as sister-in-law, Edie rightly points out to George’s lover, is enormous.

Now, Nona in Sleeper is no different (She is, though, the subject of a third person narrative and that is different). She complains about being easy and being love-obsessed. She is both, but oh how she struggles. She works against her obsession with Loren. Finally, she breaks. Then she really suffers because she will not, like her mother, Rosalind, did, run from her husband. She fights to right her life. She entertains options. (At one point I wondered if she would make a lover of Tim, her father’s original conquest years before). Her decision, coming on the wings of catastrophe, differentiates Nona from her sister protagonists. Alone, she chooses her course; she changes her course. It seems to me that she fills the void that plagued her life (perhaps presaged by the completion of her father’s biography).

 

So, Sleeper’s heroine, Nona, transforms, or promises to transform. That I liked. I also liked the other characters both women, who were intriguing portraits, Rosalind whom I suspected at first among them, and men, the ever patient Roy and long-suffering Tim. Loren? No, he is a self-deluded shit, plain and simple.  Among the main characters, unlike those in The Last and Feather, there is change and a deepening of relationship. Note: Dooley Ann Drayton (The Last) never wavers. Georgette fulfills her prescription for a better life (a boy and a girl, a successful and close sister, and a home in New York) but to the end is haunted.  The husbands and lover are nobodies, part of the set. The sister, Solange, remains damaged but does transform outwardly (a successful poetry collection). The deeper relationship with family is implied. But where will it lead Georgette?  In similar fashion in Feather, mother and father change not at all. I admire the mother’s talents and sympathize with her strictures. But Rosalind in Sleeper turns a corner that the earlier mother character cannot manage.

 

It is fascinating to see Ms. Nunez develop and examine her themes in these three books. Even if New York is not your favorite town, you can love the city Nunez paints – its streets and buildings, its arts, its restaurants and waiters, its people and the affairs they conduct.  Nunez tells the story of damaged childhood leading into and surviving the whirling life of New York in ways of which I have not tired.  That I approve more of the characters in Sleeper does not mean The Last of Her Kind is not a bigger, fuller, more complex book. It certainly is. Still, Nona, her family and friends are people I might like to meet again.

 

 

 

 

 

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