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Sigrid Nunez’s ‘The Friend’: the role of the woofer in psychoanalysis

| Thursday, January 17, 2019

Lina Domenella | The Observer

Four individuals, conservatively dressed, stand in a field. Smile-stained faces suggest a recent bout of gallivanting. The cliff to their right, rising out of the Atlantic, punctuates the idyllic scene, full stop. “Throbbing Gristle brings you,” the text above the image reads, “20 Jazz Funk Greats.”

The commune-turned-school-of-sonic-anarchy known as “Throbbing Gristle” selected this unassuming cover art for their record to deter the pasty record snob — he or she who only cares for the visibly obscure — and treat the jazz funk aficionado to an expansion of his or her horizons. When the needle drops, the listener is surprised to hear ominous layers of electro wailing in place of the expected buttery sax. Robotic doom wop. A little research contextualizes the jarring realization. The four individuals on the cover stand atop Beachy Head — a notorious suicide spot. Their gleaming smiles and screaming sounds become the punchline of a cruel joke.

“The Friend,” a novel by Sigrid Nunez about an unnamed woman and her dog, wears Nunez’s sleek prose style like “20 Jazz Funk Greats” wears its deceptively pleasant sleeve. In her book, published in February 2018, the clean, understated texture of Nunez’s words takes up arms against the ungainly content of her thematic interests, rarely emerging victorious. Suicide and grief hold a lot of sway in “The Friend.” The narrator, whose close friend and literary mentor recently killed himself, tries to medicate the pain of his passing in the spirit of Virginia Woolf’s assertion (“I suppose I did for myself what psychoanalysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.”) but her attempts produce more tragicomedy than meaningful progress.

The narrator’s primary psychoanalyst takes the shape of a dog, a lumbering, near-catatonic mass of arthritis and canine existential despair left in the her care after the dog’s previous owner (the narrator’s mentor) passed. (Note: Everybody loves dogs even if they don’t). Apollo, as he’s called, sleepwalks his way into symbolic stardom as the narrator unloads any fragment of meaning and/or nonsense that happens upon her ailing mind. She and the dog have a lot in common: “They don’t commit suicide. They don’t weep. But they can and do fall to pieces. They can and do have their hearts broken. They can and do lose their minds.” Writing didn’t save Woolf or the narrator’s mentor and won’t save the narrator, because it tries to reduce internal mysteries to language. Writing begets conflict. It lays nothing to rest. Dogs are non-reductive. They soak up their owners’ subconscious crises like animate kitchen sponges, labor the owner’s in their uncharted and vacuous depths.

The narrator and her dog unify under a symbiotic interspecial marriage to fight off the temptations of the “flaneur” — someone (like the mentor) with a tendency to wander listlessly and alone, drifting into shades of thought. The mentor, a major proponent of the whole “flaneur” thing, “did not consider a long walk with a dog genuine flanerie because it was not the same as aimless abstraction, and being responsible for a dog prevented a person from falling into abstraction.” Abstraction brings unwanted memories and stirs repressed wounds. Much better to walk with a dog. For protection.

Dogs translate comfortably to fiction in a way that humans can’t. “Writers are always selling somebody out,” Joan Didion writes, the narrator quotes. “[Writing] is an aggressive, even a hostile act … the tactic of a secret bully.” Fiction can even hurt people post-mortem, as the narrator comes to realize. But it can’t hurt dogs. It can’t break a canine’s disconcerting sense of loyalty. Much better to write about dogs. For protection.

A dog is a friend without qualification, readily folding any ambiguity assigned to the word “friend” into the folds of his or her uncompromising heart. Full of life but not so human as to really screw things up, the dog fetches the ball that solipsism so often drops. For this, the narrator is grateful.

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