In Sigrid Nunez’s later novels, she found a way to fuse the inner turmoils of modern women with the larger world of politics and cultural upheaval. Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury (1998) uses a marmoset as the lens through which Nunez portrays the marriage of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. As Nunez uses the Woolfs’ diaries and correspondence as guides, the novella ends up tracing bohemian England—and Virginia’s writing—on the cusp of World War II. For Rouenna (2001) serves as a memoir about a writer who answers a letter from a retired nurse named Rouenna Zycinski, who grew up with the writer and who became a medic in the Vietnam War. Despite growing up together during the 1950s and 1960s, Rouenna and her narrator couldn’t be more dissimilar in temperament. The parallel contrasts two visions of American motherhood, and how symbolically every American woman survived the 1960s and beyond. The Last of Her Kind (2006) uses that parallelism again, to explore two women’s lives post-1960, and how each forges a different conception of liberalism and feminism. In each novel, Nunez focuses intently on a single woman, or two women, and, by teasing out the contours of their lives, connects them naturally and fluidly to larger issues. Formally, they all serve as collages of writing styles and voices—Nunez could make a killing as a literary mimic. Letters, diary excerpts, transcribed phone messages, court testimonies, academic journal articles and more find their way into Nunez’s fictions. Despite the threat of becoming like prose scrapbooks, her novels ring out with singular concerns and with a flowing trajectory. Naked Sleeper, Nunez’s second novel, shows the writer still riding her training wheels. Oh, it begins with a letter from one character to the protagonist Nona Shelton, carrying on Nunez’s epistolary tendencies. And, yes, it hones tightly on Nona. The novel, however, never broadens its scope. It’s a portrait of a 40-year-old woman at a moment of crisis. Always the anxious sort, Nona contemplates an affair and writing a dual portrait of her (slightly) bohemian parents, but wrings her hands so much that much of her crisis consists of non-events. Nona doesn’t have an affair. She does split up with her husband but only for a few months. She doesn’t really find out what makes her parents tick. It’s not even clear that she finishes, much less publishes, her dual memoir of her parents. The things that make her nervous are honest but there’s something circumscribed about Nona and Nunez’s understanding of her world. Nona teaches English to immigrants but Nunez shows more anxiety about Nona’s grading of them than the immigrants’ interior lives, or what got them to America in the first place. When we see the students, it’s mostly through excerpts of their class assignments, all filled with malapropisms. It’s funny until we realize that this is all they’re allowed to be in Naked Sleeper: Stupid Immigrant Tricks. Nona’s dad turned out to be gay, alcoholic, and a second-rate painter. Although glimpses of him are fascinating, Nunez limits our entry into the New York art world of the 1960s and 1970s to what Nona cares about. And what Nona cares about, primarily, is herself. So, there’s a lot of navel-gazing here. Fine: I shouldn’t blame Nunez for not using Nona as a way of radiating outward into the world. Clearly, she wanted to write a portrait of a particular woman, and not have her serve as Everywoman. That’s commendable. Nona, unfortunately, isn’t a very interesting woman. Her life is banal—hell, Nona realizes that—and so are her issues, at least as Nunez conveys them. For every line that sparkles with insight or tart wit or emotional nuance, and there are plenty, Naked Sleeper adds up to little more than an inverted, late-period John Updike novel. The novel’s unstated conceit is engaging: What if an Updike or Roth or Bellow novel of middle-class affairs and sexual anxiety was told, instead, from a woman’s perspective, from a female protagonist who might look at all this priapic action with a more jaundiced and less misogynistic eye? Fair enough. But it’s a limiting conceit, and Alice Munro does this better regularly, in 40-page short stories. Nona grows, gradually, out of her emotional and creative inertia, thanks to the banal interventions of yoga, a new dog, and a last-minute trip to Venice. It’s like Nancy Meyers wrote a novel; or ten stereotypical NPR listeners converged upon a typewriter. For all of Nunez’s supple and conversational prose, Naked Sleeper is as cliched as any romance novel.
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