The Beloved “You”: Direct Address in Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

When I encounter direct address in fiction, my first assumption is that the “you” is me—that the narrator uses the second person to create kinship with the “dear reader.” But on a deeper look, the second person has more potential for complexity. “You” could be a single person, or many people, or could change over the course of a story. Or “you” could be specific to one of the story’s characters.

The pronoun “you” has often been used in fiction as a veiled first person, foregrounding a main character’s insecurity by putting the self at arm’s length. In Lorrie Moore’s Self Help, for example, the second person is cast in the imperative, taking the form of flawed instruction, crafting a warm-humored, self-deprecating parody of popular texts that purport to make living easier. In Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, the second person has an accusatory feel, as it narrates the self-destruction of its protagonist and implicates the reader at the same time. As veiled first person, “you” is tied up with the ego or with troubles in a character’s relationship with herself. “I” and “you” have trouble coexisting, because they are the same person, and because they each see flaws in the other. As veiled first person, “you” is a being one cannot escape.

But what about an “I” whose “you” is absent—and sorely missed? Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend (Riverhead Books, 2018) offers another approach to the use of “you”: direct address as a focal point for monologue.

In the opening pages, we are introduced to the novel’s central absence, a colleague of the first-person writer-narrator who has recently ended his life, leaving behind a large dog called Apollo, which the narrator takes into her care. The novel’s voice is discursive, and its events take place in the narrator’s mind more than in her actions. While seemingly nonlinear, going off on tangential riffs about the literary world, the animal world, difficult students, books as “mirrors,” the lives of artists, the nature of suicide, and so on, this novel has a deliberate chronology, much like the journey of a flâneur (one of the topics on which she digresses), starting over here and ending over there, thinking and observing along the way.

The novel’s central conceit is that the narrator is speaking to the dead friend. This direct address evolves over the course of the novel, creating shape—even plot—going from obsessive and frequent “you” in the beginning, to occasional “you” closer to the end, giving us subtle evidence of the narrator’s slow healing process as she grieves for this colleague as one would grieve for a lover. And finally, as the novel closes, her “you” becomes a new object of affection.

Much of the direct address is confession, sometimes raw, sometimes cagey, as we (and everyone around the narrator) suspect that she is in love with the dead friend. “A pause here to confess, not without shame: I never heard the news that you’d fallen in love without experiencing a pang, nor could I suppress a surge of joy each time I heard that you were breaking up with someone.” Her “you” is a claim of ownership. She doesn’t want to share him, or his memory. Further, “I have found that the more people say about you, for example those who spoke at the memorial—people who loved you, people who knew you well, people who are very good with words—the further you seem to slip away, the more like a hologram you become.” Others are sharing stories as a form of celebration or closure. This novel is something else. It seeks its form and purpose as it goes along, and seems to want to keep doing so indefinitely. There’s a loneliness to it, and also an attachment to that loneliness.

Sometimes—quite the opposite of confession—the narrator is telling the dead colleague something that he already knows. She is not informing him, and she isn’t exactly reminiscing, either. Here’s an example: “With you, the beginning of an affair often coincided with a spell of productivity. It was one of your excuses for cheating. I was blocked and I had a deadline, you once told me. Not even half joking.” She is painting a kind of portrait of the lost beloved, one that is not quite flattering and not quite unflattering. She is reminding him—or perhaps reminding herself—of conversations that lodged themselves in her memory. And, unlike in reminiscence, she does not expect a response. “Remember when?” is a question. This novel is not a question. It’s a dredging up.

I begin to wonder who the real audience for this text is. “You” is the party addressed, but do the dead read? And if they did, would they really want to read stuff they already know?

Would. A major clue appears in the first chapter, before we even know the death was a suicide: “Would have, would have. The dead dwell in the conditional, tense of the unreal. But there is also the extraordinary sense that you have become omniscient, that nothing we do or think or feel can be kept from you. The extraordinary sense that you are reading these words, that you know what they’ll say even before I write them.” The dead beloved is at once mortal and immortal, inaccessible and omnipresent. As I got to know this novel, became more familiar with its use of direct address, I started to think of it as something like prayer. Like prayer, it is directed at something powerful and mysterious—but it is also for the person praying. It is private and almost involuntary. This narrator is addressing her “you” not by choice, not for “you” to hear or understand, but because that is what comes out of her in the passion of her grief. It is devotional. It is automatic. It’s what love does.

There are a few other “yous” in this book worth examining for the light they shed on the big “you.” The first appears very early on, a refrain of an interruption: “Sometimes when I’m on the computer a window pops up: Are you writing a book?” And later, an unattributed fragment, surrounded by white space: “Are you writing a book? Are you writing a book? Click here to learn how to get published.” This “you” is the writer-narrator, or some version of her imagined by software engineers. But what is it doing in this novel? I don’t think it’s whimsy or comic relief, though it is an excellent example of the novel’s tone, which deftly manages to allow humor and avoid the maudlin. This “you” goes deeper than it seems to on the surface—it reinforces that this novel’s purpose, in the mind of its narrator, might not be publication. This writer is exploring, and doesn’t seem focused on a goal—it almost seems that she doesn’t want to have a goal, because that would mean letting go. It is possible that she is not writing a book, even though she, like the “you” she grieves, is a person who writes books. The purpose of this writing might be more spiritual, less wrapped up in the vanities of literary society, which creep in throughout the book, which the narrator labors to resist.

It’s a powerful message for a writer reading this book. We have to remind ourselves—even after doing it for decades—that the purpose of what we do goes way beyond career. It’s about connecting with the self and others—present and past, dead and alive, human and nonhuman.

Another “you,” much later in the book, appears to address all writers, including the narrator herself, and the project of this novel: “Sure I worried that writing about it might be a mistake. You write a thing down because you’re hoping to get a hold on it.” The risk is the opposite happening:  “by writing about someone lost—or even just talking too much about them—you might be burying them for good.” This comes near the conclusion of the novel, at a point when the beloved colleague is no longer “you” but “him”: “Nothing has changed. It’s still very simple. I miss him. I miss him every day. I miss him very much.” To her, it may feel as though nothing has changed. But the evidence on the page is that a whole lot has. The pronouns are evolving. The project is becoming clearer. And the second-person address is no longer the exclusive province of the dead beloved. It’s something bigger. “You” feels more like “we.”

The power in Nunez’s use of “you” is precisely this shift. Pronouns shift along with our feelings. The shift is a natural, unconscious process. It isn’t a clever writerly conceit at all—but something readers recognize from their own thoughts, their own experiences of love, loss, and grief.

The last, and to me most interesting, “you” appears only in the last chapter of the book, in which the narrator takes the inherited dog Apollo—by now undoubtedly her dog—to a beach house to live out his last days. This is a “you” who definitely does not read, but interestingly, enjoys being read to, and may, in fact, have been an audience for this text during its fictional construction. Without fanfare or explanation, the narrator slides right into direct address, and we know immediately whom she is talking to:

This is the life, eh? Sunshine, not too hot, nice breeze, birdsong. Now, I know you like the sun, or you wouldn’t be lying in it, you’d be up here on the shady porch with me. In fact, that sun must feel awfully good on your old bones. And you probably find the ocean breeze as refreshing as I do. Whenever it blows our way you lift your head to sniff, and I know your three hundred million odor receptors are picking up far more than the salty tang coming through my measly six million. It’s hard for a person to smell more than one thing at a time.

Perhaps it’s a bit coy, this slight delay in the explicit clarification that this “you” is Apollo, but this maneuver gives her love for the dog a weight that transcends species. It is probable, but not explicitly stated, that this is Apollo’s very last nap in the sun, as in the novel’s final moment he does not react to insects alighting on him. “You” is a precious thing, reserved, in this novel, for the beloved, and deeply linked to mortality and grief. Apollo has earned the narrator’s love (and ours) by the end of the novel, sharing sorrow with her, becoming—literally and legally—her emotional support animal, giving her a reason to walk the streets and read aloud and get up in the morning. He has mysterious abilities, like smelling (processing) more than one thing at a time, something the narrator has struggled with throughout the novel—her love of the departed so focused, so obsessive, that the rest of her life seems to be put on hold. Naming someone “you” is a gesture of love, and by the end of the novel, that love has managed to expand.

I’ll close with the narrator’s words: “What we miss—what we lose and what we mourn—isn’t this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are.” It’s a statement, not a question. In the end, this novel is a portrait of the dead beloved, a portrait of the dog, and most of all, a portrait of the storyteller herself. It’s a lesson in first-person characterization, done through the focus on what and whom the character loves.