(Picador, November 2001)
For Rouenna, Sigrid Nunez’s fourth novel, raises the question of whether a writer should ever tell a story “for” someone else, either at their wish or on their behalf. In this case, Nunez (or her narrator—they seem suspiciously similar) takes on the story of Rouenna, a girlhood neighbor from the projects in Staten Island. The narrator is a successful writer living in Manhattan, while her subject, a former Vietnam army nurse, manages a plus size clothing store and lives in a cozy apartment in Williamsburg.
The resulting book is a compelling, unwieldy mixture of Manhattan sophistication and outer-borough grit. Nunez’s airy, philosophical tone is an odd match with the unassuming, straightforward Rouenna, as if Anais Nin was narrating Black Hawk Down. But in drawing our attention the divergent styles of a downtown literary professor and a tough-talking army nurse, Nunez offers a rich meditation on the relationship between narrator and subject. Other authors may present their characters like Renaissance portraits with the perspective perfectly adjusted to offer a privileged viewpoint, but Nunez composes her pictures with the photographer’s shadow in the frame, always outlining the context, the biases, and the memories that inform her account.
Nunez comes to write about Rouenna in part because she is asked. After reading one of the narrator’s books, Rouenna invites her over for lunch. The narrator hesitates about going, and looks down her nose more than a little bit at Rouenna’s “graceless” vinyl-covered building and cramped floral apartment, with its cooking smells and “stuffed furniture and bric-a-brac, its doilies and afghans and needlepoint.”
The first glimpse of Rouenna is none too complimentary either. We are told that “she filled the doorway, she was so stout. Her face was flushed—from cooking perhaps, or from nervousness or stoutness—I didn’t know—but she was all red, unnaturally red.” Rouenna feeds the narrator well, then later stammers a request for help in writing a book about her experiences in Vietnam; she gets a stern refusal. The narrator would never write with or for someone else, she thinks, and then admits, “I did not even suggest that she find another write or try to write the book herself. I just wanted to discourage her.” And readers may agree. What would this cloddish creature do with a book? She is not literary; she does not even read books. Established authors, professionals that they are, rarely write books for or with graceless fat schoolmates from the projects.
But of course the narrator does, as the title suggests, write a book “for Rouenna.” In Part II, Nunez gets out of the way and allows the story to be told through long summaries drawing on her subject’s matter-of-fact accounts. In Rouenna’s childlike, deadpan style, we hear about her alcoholic parents on Staten Island, and her alienation in childhood. We learn that she hadn’t been “completely friendless, but she knew that whoever had scrawled ‘Weirdo’ and ‘Loser’ on her school locker was not expressing just one person’s opinion…Not friendless, but a loner, not one to share much in school social life, that’s how she was.”
Always a slow learner in school, she finds herself a quick study in the wards in Vietnam. She makes easy friendships with other nurses, and easy dalliances with recovering soldiers. It is as if all the circumstances that combined to make her of no account growing up have been flipped: Rouenna, the tough, slutty, Polish girl, copes nimbly with base life, while Pretty Polly, another nurse who happens to be an Ann Margaret look-alike, is too delicate to be of much use.
Some of Rouenna’s observations are well-worn; who hasn’t heard how out of touch the top brass was in Vietnam? But much of this—the promiscuity, the blossoming of wallflower Rouenna, and the collapse of prom queen-ish Polly against the backdrop of maggots and wounded soldiers—seems totally fresh. Nunez rises to the occasion. Her prose is fast-paced and suggestive, blurred images skittering by, ornamented with standout phrases and moments: “Draw a heart around her name ‘cause that’s what I always do,’” from one of the wounded dictating a letter home; Rouenna’s search for a spare severed arm for a maimed soldier who will never see his own again.
After the journey of Part II, it is a letdown to return to Nunez’s authorial handwringing in Part III. Early readers must have advised Nunez to cut Parts I and III, and let Rouenna stand on her own. But instead we learn that Nunez, or her narrator, has just separated from her lover and has bouts of depression. She tells us that she sympathizes with the chic artists in Williamsburg whom Rouenna despises. She tries to recall, in painstaking detail, where she may have been standing when Rouenna’s father chased his naked daughter through the projects’ playgrounds brandishing a belt, as if we must always know from which angle we perceive Rouenna’s experience. In framing the book’s central narrative with her own, Nunez gambles our intimacy with Rouenna for a gain in awareness of our relationship to the story.
This arrangement solves Nunez’s problems with authority and authenticity, but perhaps doesn’t yield quite the book Rouenna would have wanted. Maybe it is natural that the character overlooked and ignored for most of her life should end up seeming out of place in a book dedicated to her. “If anybody loved me, how could I be here?” This, Rouenna says, is how many of the young GI’s and nurses felt during their tours of duty. In the end, Rouenna gets the book she requested, but one can’t help but feel that, if she had had more options, she would not have chosen to be the main character in a story that doesn’t completely love her. Nor would many readers have asked to read her story in this form— but it’s a tribute to Nunez that in the end one cares enough about her character to wish her narrator away.
Laura Bradford is a writer living in the East Village.