Sigrid Nuñez tends to write about writers. In Naked Sleepers—a beautifully reflective novel occasionally marred by unnecessary plot twists—she describes a woman’s troubled love life and struggle for peace of mind while trying to write a book about her father (a prickly, eccentric gay artist who died alone and unsuccessful). Her less ambitious Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury is a short “biography” of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s pet monkey, as well as an understated and poignant portrait of their domestic and writing life. Now in her fourth and perhaps best novel to date—about a writer haunted by her brief friendship with a former Vietnam combat nurse—Nuñez revisits familiar Proustian territory with a frightening rigor.
There are potential pitfalls in such a project: One is the difficulty of saying anything fresh about Vietnam; another is the challenge of balancing the personal story of the writer against that of her subject, Rouenna, the risk being that one strand will choke the other off before it reaches full fruition. The force of this novel comes from Nuñez’s direct engagement of these problems, from her willingness to pose as many questions as she answers.
Rouenna is a character well chosen to cut against sentimentality. A fat, blunt, uneducated woman who lives alone and works a series of dead-end jobs, she contacts the narrator to ask for help in telling the story of her year in Vietnam. But Rouenna has long been deeply conflicted about the motives and honesty of people who “lie” or “whine” about their wartime experiences for cheap emotional effects (“she thought most people were full of shit”) and when the writer refuses to help, Rouenna quickly drops the idea. Still, they continue to meet, forming a friendship that abruptly ends (very early in the book, which is told retrospectively) with Rouenna’s suicide.
Thus the novel becomes an act of atonement through reconstruction—of the soul-killing atmosphere in the bleak Staten Island housing project where they both lived as children, of their uneasy friendship, of the vivid stories Rouenna told about Vietnam, and of the writer’s own recovery from a personal crisis (lost love, aborted manuscript, deep depression) by immersing herself in this material. Though the narrator never directly engages the glaring question of whether she could have prevented Rouenna’s suicide, her spare voice seems continually refined by the effort to speak clearly under the pressure of an unseen grief or dread—a quality that gives even the simplest descriptions of place and weather unsettling force and beauty (think, perhaps, of a funnier, slightly warmer-hearted Lydia Davis).
Nuñez wisely keeps her fictional writer’s existence uncluttered with outward events (in fact, she’s never even given a name), and when this narrator yields the floor for long stretches to Rouenna’s less measured cadences, one feels that she has not so much faded away as transmogrified into some more completely doomed and messy double: “It was almost like having an imaginary friend, the imaginary friend of childhood, or the familiar seen only by the eyes of insanity. . . . When I told friends about what had happened, they were unmoved. Curious at last (suicides do tend to get their attention), but unmoved.”
But Rouenna is also very real, very much herself, and her lifelong refusal to shoehorn her Vietnam experiences into a received script gives her both dignity and pathos. Though she attributes her early menopause (at age 39) to Agent Orange and still exhibits many of the conventional markers of post-traumatic stress disorder (a diagnosis she rejects with some hostility), she also believes her year as a combat nurse was the best of her life: “I was blessed to be a part of it. . . . I don’t have to tell the whole world about it. I don’t need a memorial or a parade or a twenty-one-gun salute. I just want to hold on to some of those memories.”
There was the escape from the oppression of family and home; the friendships Rouenna shared with other women; the hallucinatory sense of urgency and engagement; the ubiquitous sex and drugs, which she indulged in wholeheartedly; and above all, the sense of being wanted and needed: “She could remember men so badly hurt they could barely breathe forcing themselves to speak. Thank you nurse. God bless you, lieutenant. You are so beautiful. . . . That was how they made all the nurses feel, brave and beautiful. Was she ever going to feel that way again?”
The answer, sadly enough, is no, and it is Nuñez’s achievement to have conveyed this hard truth with its nearly unbearable ambiguity intact. The picture she gives of Vietnam is inevitably violent, but also nuanced—Rouenna’s accounts often focus on stray, riddling moments rather than events that point toward an easy moral, and she almost masochistically interrogates the accuracy and truthfulness of these memories. In this, she has much in common with the narrator, who early in the novel poses the stubborn, unanswerable question central to all of Nuñez’s work: “How much does it matter, what you remember, what you forget?”