The Vulnerables- Sigrid Nunez

Cover image of The Vulnerables by Sigrid Nunez (2023) | Courtesy of Riverhead Books

“It was an uncertain spring.”

I had read the book a long time ago, and, except for this sentence, I remembered almost nothing about it. I could not have told you about the people who appeared in the book or what happened to them. I could not have told you (until later, after I’d looked it up) that the book began in the year 1880. Not that it mattered. Only when I was young did I believe that it was important to remember what happened in every novel I read. Now I know the truth: what matters is what you experience while reading, the states of feeling that the story evokes, the questions that rise to your mind, rather than the fictional events described. They should teach you this in school, but they don’t. Always instead the emphasis is on what you remembered. Otherwise, how could you write a critique? How could you pass an exam? How could you ever get a degree in literature?

I like the novelist who confessed that the only thing to have stayed with him after reading Anna Karenina was the detail of a picnic basket holding a jar of honey.

What stayed with me all this time after reading The Years was how it opened, with that first sentence, followed by a description of the weather.

Never open a book with the weather is one of the first rules of writing. I have never understood why not.

“Implacable November weather” is the third sentence of Bleak House. After which Dickens famously goes on a lot about fog.

“It was a dark and stormy night.” I have never understood why this phrase has been universally acknowledged to be the worst way for (I forget who: something else to look up) to begin a novel. Scorned for being both unexciting and, at the same time, too melodramatic.

(Edward Bulwer-Lytton, originally. In a book called Paul Clifford, in 1830. Others thereafter, in mockery, most memorably Ray Bradbury, Madeleine L’Engle, and Snoopy.)

Unimaginative was the word Oscar Wilde used to describe people for whom weather is a topic of conversation. Of course, in his day, weather—English weather in particular—was boring. Not the far more erratic, often apocalyptic event people all over the world obsess about today.

Important to point out, however, that it wasn’t normal fog—condensed vapor, a low cloud—that Dickens was talking about, but a miasma caused by London’s appalling industrial pollution.

It was an uncertain spring.

Early each morning I went for a walk. It was my chief pleasure in a dearth of pleasures, observing day by day the arrival of a new season: the magnolias putting out their petals and—so poignantly soon, as it seemed to me every year, but never more so than the spring of 2020—shedding their petals. The cherry blossoms, even lovelier—loveliest, agreed—but likewise short-lived. The daffodils and the narcissus—narcisusses? narcissi?—and the gaudy tulips that seemed almost like wild mouths screaming for attention. “Too excitable” is how Sylvia Plath once saw a vase of “too red” ones. Like Rilke’s roses “standing up and shouting red.” To Elizabeth Bishop, the spots on the tips of the dogwood petals were like burns from a cigarette butt. Poets.

Can it be accidental that the names for flowers are also always beautiful words? Rose. Violet. Lily. Names so appealing that people choose them for their baby girls. Jasmine. Camellia. I once knew a bulldog named Petunia. A cat named Mimosa.

So many other beautiful ones I can think of: anemone, lilac, azalea. Of course, there must be an exception. There are always exceptions. But though I’m not so keen about phlox, I can’t come up with a single really ugly flower name, can you?

There are other plants, though, like weeds and herbs, with hideous names, like vetch. We’re thinking of naming the baby Vetch. Meet the twins: Mugwort and Milkvetch. Horehound. Bugbane. Wormwood: the name C. S. Lewis gave the devil apprentice in The Screwtape Letters.

Snapdragon! Not for a baby girl, never, but a good name for a cat.

There were days when I stayed out a long time—up to three or four hours. I made a loop. I went from park to park. That’s where the flowers were. Early on, before the playgrounds were closed, I took comfort in watching the young children, or even just hearing their trilling voices as I sat on a bench nearby. (Not reading, as I would have been doing in ordinary times. I had lost the ability to concentrate. It was only the news that gripped my attention, the one thing I wished I could ignore.) I enjoyed watching the dogs play, too, before the dog runs were closed. Weren’t we all reduced to the state of children now. These were the rules: break them and you’ll be punished, your happy-making privileges taken away. For the good of all: understood. But the dogs—what had they done?

Of course, I still saw plenty of dogs being walked. But it seemed to me there was something different about them. They knew something was up. The somber way they plodded along, brows furrowed, heads low. Now what have they gotten themselves into, those brows seemed to say.

A young friend of mine disapproved of my spending so much time outdoors.

You’re allowed to get a breath of air, she said. But that doesn’t mean wandering about the streets for hours.

But why put it like that, wandering about, as if I were some dotty, driftless old lady.

A quick turn around the block, a trip to the grocery store, get in, get out, no dawdling. Stay home. That’s the rule.

Don’t play dumb, she said. You’re breaking the rules, and you know it.

A vulnerable, she called me. You’re a vulnerable, she said. And you need to act like one.

The governor of New York, the man making the rules, agreed.

Social media fanned a tale of quarantined women masturbating while watching his daily press briefings.

This morning an email from a stranger, a woman angry about something I wrote. It is trash, she says. Every word of it.

Which could mean only one thing: I must be trash myself.

Like that other woman, many years ago, who wrote to express her disgust with me for writing about two characters apparently based on my parents. English was not her first language.

Only sick person do mother and father so wrong, she wrote. For this I hope you punish.

I like this true story, about a writer who wanted to base a fictional character on someone he knew. He disguised her, for example giving his character close-cropped hair instead of the pageboy the real-life model had worn since high school, and a pair of eyeglasses with striking cat-eye tortoiseshell frames. Though in real life the woman was childless, in the book she has a twenty-something-year-old son.

Some weeks before the book came out, the woman developed a bad case of dry eye and could no longer tolerate wearing her contact lenses. For her new glasses, needless to say, she chose cat-eye tortoiseshell frames. Now that she was no longer young and her hair was thinning and fading, at her stylist’s suggestion she got a pixie cut. Neither the writer nor anyone else in the woman’s life at the time knew that, as a teenager, she’d had a baby that she’d given up for adoption. It was just now, having reached his twenties, that her son chose to seek out his birth mother.

I have heard that Chekhov wanted to write a novel that he was going to call Stories from the Lives of My Friends. Probably his friends did not want him to write it.

Another angry message, earlier this week, from a person who hadn’t read, but happened to know about, something I wrote. As he understood it—better say misunderstood it—I had attacked a professor for sexually harassing young women.

Where were YOU, this person wrote, when an OLDER WOMAN took advantage of ME? Where were YOU?

Where was I? Where was I? Why does his question pierce me? When I tell people I am tempted to write him back, every one of them jumps to say, Don’t.

But not every stranger getting in touch with me these days is angry. There is the woman writing from Albania who thinks I’m a Dear Gentleman and offers to be my wife. She will love me good, she promises. She will make me feel like Real Man. (Which reminds me: What stopped all the many emails I used to get with offers for ways to enlarge my penis?) And about once a week, a voicemail from some woman identifying herself as a volunteer who is calling just to check on me. The same message each time: God loves you. Followed by a Bible verse.

Thus from different points of the cosmos do good wishes and bad wishes blow my way. Love and hate.

Meanwhile, I have been working on a survey for a literary symposium, trying to answer a question I am asked all the time.

I know of research studies of twins, including some whose co-twin did not survive birth. For many of the survivors, the result has been lifelong feelings of loss, pain, emptiness, and guilt. In one case, a man who was not told about his stillborn twin until he was well into adulthood described experiencing huge relief. At last he had an explanation for the aching void he had always known; why, through every joy in his life, no matter how rich, ran a seam of grief.

I never had a twin—so why did this man’s story strike a chord in me? Why did it feel like a revelation? Something is missing. Something has been lost. I believe this is at the heart of why I write.

For a while, during the same time I found myself unable to read, I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to write again—just one of the many uncertainties of that spring. (Not a writer I know who didn’t experience the same.) But the feeling has survived and will not go away: I want to know why I feel as though I have been mourning all my life.

Excerpted from The Vulnerables by Sigrid Nunez. Copyright © 2023 by Sigrid Nunez. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Read a review of The Vulnerables by Chloe Cheimets.