Reviewed by Alice Whitwham
Sarah Manguso’s slender, swift-moving second memoir is an elegy to her close friend, Harris, who escaped from a psychiatric hospital and jumped under a train in 2008. Early in the narrative, Manguso admits that she has no access to Harris’ actions and whereabouts in the ten unaccounted-for hours leading up to his death. “I want to say that ten hours are missing from Harris’ life, but that isn’t right. They were in his life. They just weren’t in anyone else’s.” Neither is it her objective, in this book, to investigate them. But if The Guardians resists the form of journalistic report, neither is it a typical memoir of loss. Manguso’s odd, oblique prose obstinately refuses the conventional emotional and narrative satisfactions that memoir usually delivers – the glib tribute, the false closure, the meretricious redemption, the ordered form by which an inexplicable and unmanageable experience is given specious order. The economy and flatness of affect in her writing speaks to the inadequacy of language in offering either compensation or expression for her loss.
In not heeding the usual call of elegy – to mourn, and to move – in any conventional way, the structure of The Guardians is such that its parts do not accumulate into a work that feels aesthetically whole. Written two years after Harris’ death, the book describes the crowded apartment Harris and Manguso shared after college, recounts Manguso’s year on a writing fellowship in Rome, Harris’ death, the year of mourning, and the year following – the year of Manguso’s marriage – all in notes and anecdotes derived from journal entries, pages of medical research, and flashes of philosophical rumination. Of Harris, we learn that he was a gifted mathematician and musician, that he built computer software, that he moved from New York to California for graduate school, that on subway rides he preferred to listen to the sounds of the city – “the low sounds of cars moving forward” – than to music. But the details provided are fragmentary, and fleeting. The only key Manguso provides to the mystery of Harris’ death is the proposal, drawn from her own experience and medical theory, that his suicide was caused by a side effect of anti-psychotic medication, a bodily sensation known as “akathisia” so intensely unpleasant as to contribute to impulsive acts of violence, to oneself and to others.
Both in its ruminations on suicide and in its attention to the experience of grief, then, the organization of The Guardians reflects Manguso’s sustained commitment to an unmediated accuracy. Part medical analysis, it is rigorous in its refusal to go beyond known facts. Part personal history, Manguso is scrupulous about producing an unrelentingly precise and clear-eyed account of her pain. Though the familiar stages of grief can be traced here – numbness, anger, denial, resignation – the book’s development across a collection of non-chronological observations and memories takes on a structure that mirrors a mind’s application to itself, a mind in the process of meticulously recording its own trauma.
The absolute interiority of grief—that it is observable only to the person experiencing it—is common to any memoir of loss. Between mourning as public fact (the event of death, social and collective rituals of bereavement, the public platitudes so easily applied to loss) and mourning as private experience (what grief and trauma really feel like) lies a gulf that the memoir writer must navigate. In The Guardians, Manguso can acknowledge, for example, the incident of Harris’ death, but she cannot allow her own understanding of reality to accommodate his absence. “I’m in denial not that Harris dead,” she says, “but that he isn’t alive.” That her grief is elusive even to herself makes reconciling fact and feeling more difficult. Acutely aware of how imagination influences perception, of the way time changes what we say about the past, pain itself—the diffuse expansiveness of her loss—presents itself as mysterious, obscure: “Nothing I perceive is real,” Manguso writes. “Nothing I remember is real [...] some parts of the story are gone, but they have left a heavy imprint, and even now I can detect the shape of what made it, the shape of what used to exist.”
Manguso’s struggle to come to terms with her grief is further complicated by the challenge she faces in defining her relationship with Harris. Unlike Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, or Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye, Manguso’s memoir-as-elegy recounts the death not of a family member or a romantic partner, but of a beloved friend; a loss much less familiar and therefore harder, perhaps, to comprehend. “It doesn’t sound like much when I say my friend died,” Manguso writes, “Yet there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother, says an Old Testament proverb.” Among the anecdotes affording deeper insight into the pair’s friendship is one concerning a period of separation, when Harris was away at graduate school in California and Manguso was working in New York. Lost one day during a long drive, Harris called to ask Manguso to navigate him west, out of Riverside country. “As in the old story,” she says, “the wanderer hears a disembodied voice that leads him out of the desert.” Manguso’s directions were good enough for the phone-calls to become habit: “Whenever he was lost, he would call me. It was always night time in New York, and I’d look at a road atlas under my desk and tell him what was there.”
As we are told of their meeting in college, of Manguso’s closeness to Harris’ family, of their spending the day together on September 11, 2001, as they watched, from Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, the second tower fall, the sense we gain of the intimacy between them is one of abiding, and entirely unsexual, love—its lack of physical content something Manguso can joke about: “Harris and I never attempted to touch each other, so his penis was always safe from the responsibility of its power. We could talk about it as if it were an amazing restaurant in another town.” A friendship—expansive and platonic—in which the importance of bonds is informed neither by blood nor by intercourse makes Manguso’s task of reconciling its loss to consciousness both more trying, and more troubling.
But the challenge of negotiating the uncharted space between public and private bereavement, which The Guardians so acutely opens up, is expressed, above all and most profoundly, in terms of a linguistic impasse. Manguso, a poet as well as a writer of prose, works throughout in a language which is only ever partially translated into a meaningful public idiom. As though risking only a fraction of her mind in what she puts on the page, her expression is restrained, concrete, resolutely spare. In her oddly beautiful visualization of Harris’ death, for example, she tethers her sentences to the bare details of Harris’ body:
Harris met the train with his body, offered it his body.
The train drove into his body. It drove against his body.
It sent him from his body.
Such an unbalanced, elliptical style, avoiding the emotional effects that might be conjured by the indirections of metaphor or analogy, could easily alienate the reader, upon whose inclusion and empathy a memoir writer depends. Yet far from being prosaic or distancing, Manguso’s stark lack of embellishment here constitutes a poetics of its own. Altering her relationship to the text, The Guardians demands from the reader a more direct and immediate, perhaps even a more visceral, level of engagement.
In her previous memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay (2008), Manguso wrote of a harrowing nine years spent battling a rare neurological disease, in which her nervous system worked at odds with her immune system, and forced her to undergo blood transfusions, severe depression, and paralysis. If The Two Kinds of Decay was not about illness but about how we use language to describe and own the inexplicable, The Guardians is also an attempt to define the inchoate and unmanageable—but with far less clear resolutions. Composing the book several years after her illness, the passage of time in The Two Kinds of Decay allowed Manguso to use writing to make some sense of her experience. Writing retrospectively allowed her to learn that living is about understanding the damages time inflicts, and that accepting them is the condition of carrying on. The breakdown of narrative form in The Guardians seems to suggest only that understanding and acceptance have yet to be attained. Harris’ suicide is an irreparable destruction, in relation to which language can offer neither comfort nor comprehension. Yet this breakdown itself constitutes The Guardians’ unusual triumph; in this exceptional book, Manguso’s embrace of rhetorical failure allows her to achieve an elegy which mourns and moves entirely on its own terms; a strange, and deeply involving, lament.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux , March 2012