The Vulnerables: A Novel
“above all, The Vulnerables, like many of Sigrid Nunez’s other exceptional writings, is about what it means to be human.”
The Vulnerables by Sigrid Nunez could be marketed as a pandemic novel. But that would be selling it short. For The Vulnerables is a profound novel of ideas that explores grief, aging, friendships, writing, literature, and death. This exquisite work defines and redefines the very notion of a pandemic novel through its playful, yet meditative, unconventional form and content.
Narrated in the first person, The Vulnerables relates the thoughts and experiences of a woman who lives in New York City during the Covid lockdown. The plot, such as it is, conveys the thoughts of the narrator, a writer, who is bird-sitting a parrot named Eureka in an acquaintance’s well-decorated apartment. Her privacy is then interrupted when she is joined by and stuck sharing the apartment with a much younger Gen Z dude, whom she nicknames Vetch. The plot of The Vulnerables is not the point. Though the narrative is not action-packed, it is riveting and thought provoking.
Narrated in a sort of stream of consciousness, it is no accident that The Vulnerables opens and closes with references to Virginia Woolf a clear influence on Nunez. The Vulnerables begins: “It was an uncertain spring,” from Virginia Woolf’s The Years. While situated during the Covid lockdown during the spring of 2020, the narrator’s thoughts move back and forth in time, reflecting on relationships, books, writing, and life experiences.
The narrator shares her ruminations, as if she is thinking aloud or having a series of conversations with her readers and herself. Her narrative includes insights such as: “For the writer, obsessive rumination is a must. Imagination must follow dark thoughts to dark places, you can’t ever say, Stop, don’t go there. And isn’t that the job, to imagine the lives of others and what they are going through?” But she does not simply sprinkle her novel with truisms or musings. Instead, she revisits and develops the central themes and ideas throughout her work.
Among the ideas that Nunez explores, as she highlights in her title, is vulnerability. Early in the novel the narrator, who is over 65 is called “vulnerable” and told to stay home so that she does not contract Covid. Her temporary lockdown roommate “Vetch,” who has had mental health issues but is young, is also referred to as vulnerable. Even the parrot that she and Vetch care for is described as vulnerable.
The narrator states: “You start to care about all the animals, even the tiniest ones, you understand how highly vulnerable all lives are. You start to think about your own vulnerability and about death, your own death.” The novel explores how everyone becomes vulnerable during a global pandemic due not only to the disease itself but also because of loneliness, isolation, grief, loss, and change.
The Vulnerables is a book for readers writers, and thinkers; it is an homage to Nunez’s literary forebearers and inspirations. The narrator explains that she was taught that a cure for writer’s block is starting with the words “I remember.” She then references one of her “favorite books” I Remember by Joe Brainard, who always began with that phrase and putting down one memory after another when working on a memoir. In fact, most of The Vulnerables is a book of remembering—people, experiences, and books. Nunez aptly ends her discussion on remembering with a quote from Gunter Grass who defined a writer as a “professional rememberer.”
The Vulnerables, like Nunez’s 2018 work The Friend, are alike in form and subject matter. Both are written in a non-linear, seemingly free-flowing style and are about caring for an animal during a time of loss and grief. But above all, The Vulnerables, like many of Sigrid Nunez’s other exceptional writings, is about what it means to be human.