The Art of Spotting by Sigrid Nunez

“Success in the literary world,” Solondz said, “wasn’t given to her when she was about 23 years old with a story in The New Yorker. She really took her craft and writing seriously. She works hard at it and regularly, as part of her life. She never left him.

In the middle of September this year Nunez took me on afternoon walks around her Lower Manhattan neighborhood, to parks she visited at dawn and streets she barely walked in the early months of the pandemic. “The Vulnerables” is based on that time, a time of pain tucked away behind the apartment doors, as Nunez’s narrator goes out into the street and, in his own way, into the thinking that happens, free, independent. Begins:

“It’s been an uncertain spring.”

I had read the book a long time ago and, apart from that sentence, I remembered almost nothing about it. I couldn’t tell you about the people who appear in the book or what happened to them. I couldn’t tell you (until later after I looked it up) that the book started in 1880. Not that it mattered. It wasn’t until I was young that I believed 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 arise in your mind, not the fictional events described. They should teach you this in school, but they don’t. The emphasis is always instead on what you have remembered.

Nunes grabs the first sentence of the book from Virginia Woolf’s The Years. Her love for Woolf in her early writing, her attempt to imitate her is quoted here. Nunez now sounds just like Nunez: her clarity, her sincerity, her casual rigor.

During our afternoon stroll through her neighborhood, we took a break to spend an hour on the Strand at 12th and Broadway. It was bustling with shoppers around tables piled high with books. Nunez and I lingered over to the new fiction exhibit where her book would be in two months.

Over the course of an hour, Nunez and I picked up new release after new release. We looked at the first lines. We each had a separate copy; we each read the first line. Nunes wondered aloud: What if that adjective were removed? What if these clauses were repealed? What if the first sentence was cut and this second, wonderful the sentence were first sentence? I was looking at the personal work of a writer who is also a reader. It was part of a commitment to understand what makes a good sentence: an interdependence between form and feeling. Because if you can’t be sure what’s wrong with a sentence, how are you going to make one that feels right? The writer must become, like Nunes, his own watchman.

Nunes and I walked out of the store, starting another leg of another long walk around town. Nunes noted how things have changed since the lockdown. Garbage everywhere; noise; homelessness that can break your heart, people single from life. As we walked west, we passed a man peeing in the center of the street; 100 yards further on, apparently a luxury new apartment building. We settled down for a final chat on a bench in the small triangle of Jackson Square Park, where Nunes regularly returned during Covid. It was a nice place to sit. A woman across from us was engrossed in her lunch. Her noodles continued to roll onto the sidewalk under her bench, where a mouse, and then a family of mice, joined her, enjoying their lunch as well. Nunes was delighted. “I’m so glad we decided to sit here,” she said. “Because it’s the most fascinating thing.” Turns out mice are all around us. Under our bench, in the bushes. “A mouse paradise!” Nunes said. We discussed mice at length; stray cats and dogs you don’t see in Manhattan, only homeless people. Sitting there, I imagined Nunes during Covid—the park empty, the streets empty, her mind full—happily alone.

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