The Friend is more of a one-sided conversation via stream of consciousness rather than a plotted story with structured characters.
Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend examines the existential vagaries of life and death through its narrator’s mournful, pondering perspective. After her best friend and mentor struggles with his aging body and waning relevance and ultimately takes his own life, the narrator languishes in her confusion, anger and sadness to the point she fears talking about him to others and misses deadlines for the book he encouraged her to write. Per his final wishes, she suddenly inherits his Great Dane, Apollo. In their shared loss and looming eviction from an apartment complex that prohibits dogs, the narrator considers the impact and memories her mentor left behind as her existence unwittingly evolves around his old and now her new pet—a living, breathing specter of the man they both lost—and she sinks into depression. Through therapy and ultimately confronting her complicated feelings for her old friend in writing, the vocation that first brought them together, she finds a semblance of peace in the face of uncertainty lying in wait for her and the dog.
The Friend is more of a one-sided conversation via stream of consciousness rather than a plotted story with structured characters. The narrator’s musings arise without preface. Common themes do recur, however, as she ponders the roles that she, her mentor, their acquaintances and predecessors in literature and academia play in relation to one another and the world around them. It’s not always pretty. Writers and non-writers alike are competitive and disparaging of each other for supposedly being elitist or uncultured and using each other for personal pleasure or gain. While this highbrow discourse sometimes overwhelms and somewhat self-congratulates, it makes sense for the main character to try conceptualizing the human experience through considered takes on writing since poets, authors and their ilk do so in their own works.
The novel’s fault may lie in how it can be interpreted as celebrating the flawed-genius trope. Readers may disagree with the protagonist’s friendship with and possible romantic sentiments for her lifelong confidante, of whom she remains unsure because of his predatory proclivities and incensed opinions. The two friends often clash over his womanizing ways, which he supports with claims that the excitement of seduction, particularly of young college women, fuels his creativity and, thus, his livelihood. He also comes off at times like an academic gatekeeper, despairing over how literature’s accessibility in the age of the internet has seemingly cheapened it and steered it towards embracing incorrect interpretations and PC policing of authors’ works. Interspersed throughout the story, though, are glimpses of the two characters’ genuine regard for each other, such as reminiscences of easygoing vacations they spend abroad, their fondness of and willingness to assist with their counterpart’s respective writing and their continued friendship over decades. Whether to stay by a person with problematic tendencies is a touchy subject, but their relationship is true to how individuals aren’t all good or bad.
Seeing the narrator and Apollo’s companionship develop both hurts and charms. He too withdraws into himself and misbehaves over missing his owner, but the dog acts playful by sleeping in her bed and perking up when she reads to him. Her attempts to conceptualize the grief he can’t convey in words take an obsessive slant, but at the heart, this shows her compassion and need to connect. As Apollo also ages, she’s again forced to confront the mortality of her loved ones. The depth of their separate and combined emotional unravelings sweetens how they quietly come to terms in the moments they share at a beach house.
When she cries out “my friend!” in the book’s final pages, she could be calling for either her departed friend, her steadfast canine or both, and that’s the subtle beauty of Nunez’s novel. It portrays the strength of interpersonal and human-and-animal bonds and showcases the validity in celebrating the life and mourning the death of cherished pets and people.