Woman with a parrot

Gustave Courbet, Woman with a Parrot (1866) | Public domain

The Vulnerables (Riverhead Books, 2023), Sigrid Nunez’s melancholy ninth novel, begins with a provocation. Despite what high school English coursework might have us believe, the book’s narrator observes, it’s not important to remember what happens in a piece of literature. What’s important is the reader’s “experience while reading, the states of feeling the story evokes.” Feel free, she suggests, to forget the plot.

Nunez’s protagonists are usually self-aware; this one goes a step further in intimating that we needn’t hang on her every word—or every experience. It’s a novelist’s bait-and-switch: does what happens in The Vulnerables matter, or not?

For those of us who can barely recall a single scene of a novel that made us weep with bliss or agony, the acknowledgment that emotional memory matters is a comfort. But are we letting ourselves off the hook? Nabokov famously tested his Cornell students not on the themes of Anna Karenina, but on its nitty-gritty plot points, like what toys Anna gave her son for his birthday “in March 1875.” What is a text if not its painstakingly-chosen specifics? 

The tension between the slipperiness of our memory for events and the stubbornness of our feelings about them is ripe material for a pandemic novel. In describing a writer sheltering in New York City, Nunez captures both the parade of bizarre incidents during COVID-19, and the collective sense of confusion and unease. The Vulnerables is both an attempt to pin down a moment in time, and a rumination on how tricky such an attempt can be. 

Our narrator, who goes unnamed, is locked down in the early days of COVID-19 when she gets a call. A wealthy friend of a friend is trapped on the West Coast and has left her parrot, Eureka, behind. The parrot sitter, a troubled young college dropout, has absconded to his parents’ house in Vermont, leaving the parrot without a companion. Can she care for the bird? The writer agrees, and eventually moves in with Eureka when a visiting pulmonologist takes up residence in her own apartment. Bird and woman begin to bond. To make Eureka happy, the writer learns to coo “good boy” to her handsome red and green companion and stroke his neck when he plays with his toys. She loves pleasing him, but frets about the authenticity of their connection. Was he only happy because, “he’d succeeded in making [her] happy”? Then one day the errant parrot-sitter returns, upsetting the delicate dynamic and intruding on our heroine’s solitude. Now she has a second roommate: an angsty, antagonistic young vegan in dirty clothes who is also, the narrator reluctantly admits, very good looking.

So, is this a book about an older female writer and younger male ne’er-do-well coming to understand each other—even desire each other—in a moment of isolation and extremity? Yes and no. As in Nunez’s excellent last two novels, plot is only a small portion of its pleasures. Nunez weaves together literary quotation, film analysis, news of the day, gossip, personal remembrance, data, and anecdotes in an interlocking structure, like a magpie lining her nest with special treasures. The book’s momentum comes primarily from the juxtaposition of these musings. For example, the parrot-sitter arguing with his girlfriend is juxtaposed with the impetus for Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which in turn is juxtaposed with the narrator’s memory of her first love, a man unlike her in race and socioeconomic status, whose father desperately tried to tear them apart. These different guises of troubled romance, past and present, operatic and quotidian, vibrate against each other.  

The novel is highly self-critical, analyzing itself repeatedly as it proceeds. The narrator discusses her love of Joe Brainard’s I Remember, a book that lists many pieces of mid-twentieth-century American cultural trivia: “Perry Como shirts … Davy Crockett hats, blue suede shoes.” But, she concedes, some don’t see the appeal in this kind of work. “I remember pillbox hats, too. So what?” It’s a question the novel levies at itself. Everyone remembers Fauci, Birx, Trump. So burned into public consciousness are these figures it’s almost nauseating to read about them. Why bother writing yet another account? And yet how many details do we remember from that time? So many months were lost to terror and malaise. The narrator herself wonders, in hindsight, “However did I pass the time?” Nunez uses COVID-19 to grapple with the larger promises and failures of literature. The narrator quotes Günter Grass—the writer is a “professional rememberer.” But forgetting is an essential part of living too; The Vulnerables offers one example of how “a professional rememberer” might depict it. 

Fans of Nunez will recognize familiar themes—the love between humans and animals, fear of ecological collapse, dark emotions regarding parenthood, confrontation with mortality, degradations of American politics. There are moments where the observations can be a little pat. “From the beginning, pandemic humor was prolific and a blessing; for even more than hope, humor helps us to endure.” Well, sure. An extended breakdown of the film My Octopus Teacher could have been cut. That said, while not as taut as Nunez’s masterpiece The Friend, the novel is full of the sharp observations that lend an insight as well as beauty. Whether we remember them or not, the details of life still drive our lingering emotions. Near the end of the book, the narrator quotes Virginia Woolf on The Waves. The novel was “written to a rhythm, not a plot.” The same can be said for The Vulnerables, whose offbeat rhythm matches that of those rueful, lost days.

Read an excerpt from The Vulnerables by Sigrid Nunez, courtesy of Penguin Random House.