These are dark days for aging male seducers, particularly those plying their trade as writing professors. Imagine yourself as a committed shagger of students—it’s your lifeblood! it keeps you vital!—graying out of the charisma you once possessed. Your theories about the erotics of the classroom sounded more convincing back in the 1980s. Once it was easy to attract young acolytes who followed you around, hanging on your every literary reference. These days they find you a little gross, recoil from your kisses—charges are likely to be brought. Even calling them “dear” creates complaints. When you manage to wrangle one into the sack, she’s not exactly aswoon with desire. You catch a glimpse of your flaccid torso in a full-length hotel room mirror and suddenly understand why.
What’s left but to kill yourself, as the mentor and friend addressed only as “you” by the unnamed narrator of Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend has done (we’re not told how), shortly before the novel opens. Which is how the narrator—let me call her N for convenience—comes to inherit a depressed and aging 180-pound Great Dane named Apollo with a head like a pony’s, who barely fits into her rent-stabilized five-hundred-square-foot New York apartment where dogs aren’t allowed in the first place. (Losing a rent-stabilized apartment would be a tragedy of such epic proportions that the only human character granted a name in this book is the building’s Mexican super, Hector. Recall that Apollo came to Hector’s aid in the Iliad; here Hector returns the favor by not getting N evicted.)
But first, a few words about “you,” whom we come to know entirely through N’s obsessive reminiscences, since dwelling on him is a way of keeping him with her. “When a solipsist dies, after all, everything goes with him,” David Foster Wallace wrote in a famously patricidal (and exceedingly sanctimonious, I’ve always thought) essay on writers he designated the “Great Male Narcissists” of the postwar generation, namely Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Philip Roth. The prospect of their own deaths, invariably preceded by the demise of their sexual prowess, seemed to these “literary phallocrats” coterminous with the death of the novel itself, said Wallace, pounding sharp reprimanding nails into their collective coffin. Though no less self-absorbed and certainly no less a phallocrat, “you” never quite made it to these elevated literary echelons. Midlist at best (unless sub-midlist is a category), he nevertheless regarded his physical decline and the decline of literary value as twinned catastrophes.
Is The Friend a tribute or a nail in a coffin? Nunez certainly nails a type. Though N is nothing if not generous regarding “you”’s shortcomings, among her themes is status in the literary world, about which she’s delightfully scathing: the viperish competitiveness (“I hope there are more people than this at my memorial”), the tragedy of not achieving what…
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