March 2012

Josh Zajdman


The Guardians: An Elegy by Sarah Manguso

Think of an author who writes in clean, spare sentences and oozes bravery. If you thought Hemingway, you're wrong. Sarah Manguso is much braver. In her two memoirs, 2008's The Two Kinds of Decay and now, The Guardians: An Elegy, she traffics only in brutal honesty as she elevates considerations of life's ugliness and sadness, fear, death and doubt into two works consistently astonishing and enlightening. Both books can be read in an afternoon, but, if you try it, be warned. Your level of emotional involvement will preclude you from being useful to anyone for at least a few days. She is a writer's writer: spare in description, never reliant on ornamentation, cloying stylistic flourishes, or the need to impress. Her strength as a memoirist places her alongside the work of Didion and Karr. These aren't merely essayists, but chroniclers of emotional intimacy. Their writing is painful and insistent, but always necessary, compelling, and where appropriate, wryly funny. What should have been deeply personal and isolating topics -- Manguso's own struggle with a devastating auto-immune disorder and the suicide of a very dear and troubled friend -- actually show readers how to learn from, grow and engage with, but never shy away from, the difficulties of life. She talks about the things nobody else does, and forces you to look at them, through them and finally past them. Gone is the voyeuristic quality so often attributed to the glut of memoirs in today's celebrity culture. Instead, the reader is placed in the hands of a prodigious talent, greatly benefiting from Manguso's capacious and unambiguous perspective.

The Guardians, in its densely and artfully packed 112 pages, manages to engage the reader from the beginning. After lamenting the inability to provide "a more accurate rendering of the truth," due to her lack of a journalistic background, she plunges right into the searing pain experienced at the suicide of her closest friend, Harris. "This pain is mine, and unlike my friend, I don't try to hide it. I let it get all over everything. I yell in my studio. I cry on the subway. I tell everyone I know that my friend threw himself under a train." This mess of pain, the layers underneath its thin, spiky surface, and its diffuse quality, make up the burning nexus of Manguso's rage and her prickling, melancholic dread. In summation, Manguso proclaims her belief "in the possibility of unendurable suffering." This is a mere three pages into The Guardians, and provides a perfect snapshot of the complexities, latent grudges, and outbursts which go on to characterize Manguso's grief, and serve as mileposts for the reader's emotional trajectory.

Harris becomes very close to the reader. At first, the news of his death is announced, and though sad, doesn't register. This is a strange sensation as his death is very obviously, the focus of the book. Ghostlike, he haunts theses pages, but from a distance. Gradually, Manguso twists the knob and Harris magically comes into focus. One understands how he became Manguso's friend, temptation, mystery, and possibly even protector. A shared love of music solidified their budding friendship. "I muddled my way through the soprano line of some song, and he looked at me as if it had been the best thing he'd ever heard." By that point, the loss of Harris is felt acutely by even the most emotionally naïve reader, which makes Manguso's description of those "mundanities of July 23rd" all the more devastating.

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.

That's one of several minor masterpieces sprinkled throughout the book. Manguso writes in dense, clipped paragraphs, easily parlaying depths of feeling into shallows of syntax. However, they aren't all grief-laden. In one of the more lighthearted moments, and surely one of the funniest descriptions of platonic friendship, Manguso writes, "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." This type of conversation was regularly occurring throughout the years of their friendship, as they "returned, yearningly, to the subject of the transcendent penis."

Interestingly, and quite differently, the relationship between Manguso and Harris further developed as a result of 9/11. The Guardians offers some of the most honest and direct writing concerning the diasaster -- notably devoid of the sentimentality or kitsch that seems to govern the genre. "We didn't stare at the tower as if it were television. We looked at it, looked away, talked a little. People were jumping out of it like angels.... Harris walked me home, his left arm around me. All the subway trains in Manhattan had stopped. Some of the stations were filled with corpses, with fire."

As Manguso recounts the post-9/11 Manhattan "wrapped in a paper shroud," she points out that her memory "has been written over with what happened since: My friend, who stood with me and helped me, who hugged me as we walked back toward the city from the river shore, is dead." Before Harris killed himself, Manguso spent much time in Europe working on her first memoir. In a fascinating insight into the authorial process, she writes of being "aware of accuracy as an abstract goal, but I don't know what it looks like or how to find it or how I would know it if I found it or what I would do if I did." In both of these accounts, Manguso is searching. She is aware, she is dedicated, she is brave. All of this allows her to move forward, but without certainty as to the results. As she puts it, "Every moment is the unveiling of the preceding moment." We must always move forward, even if we don't know where we are going, how we will get there or what we will encounter, or lose, along the way. That's just one thing Sarah Manguso taught me. Another? An inspiring reminder: "Bad surgery is a felony, whereas bad writing is merely a moral offense."

The book ends with Manguso reflecting on how "lucky" she was to know Harris. I'd imagine the reader feels just as lucky to have read her.

The Guardians: An Elegy by Sarah Manguso
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374167240
112 pages