on The Guardians, a memoir by Sarah Manguso (Farrar Straus and Giroux)

Mimi Alford’s JFK memoir, Once Upon A Secret, is now a New York Times bestseller. The author says, “Talking about it is really helping me. It’s making me feel whole.” Feeling whole, she has written. The memory of soaking in a post-coital bathtub with the president is now a cooled-off, discrete object she can describe with equanimity.

MangusoCover.jpegHer book may be exploitative trash, but it shares a characteristic with many so-called literary memoirs, namely an inability to give the reader a sense of its necessity. The author may state its exigency, but the reader doesn’t feel it. The story may agitate our sentiments, but only in a conventional way. In the end, what we have on our hands is a grab for celebrity and a reflection of credit on the writer. Among the many recent illness, disability, grief and death memoirs, there are only a few that stand out as dynamic works.

The Guardians, Sarah Manguso’s memoir about the 2008 death of her friend Harris Wulfson, is especially intent on skirting convention. In fact, eluding, disparaging, being ill-equipped or unwilling to feel culturally grooved responses to death are what The Guardians is largely about. At age 34, Harris threw himself under a subway train after walking out unnoticed from a hospital. A musical prodigy, he rises in memory as a bundle of anecdotal quirks and endearing gestures. She writes, “He liked whitefish. He liked drinking Manhattans. He timed his jump in front of the train, and that’s the story.” And, “In ten years I never heard him say anything unkind about a woman.” In death, his absence seems to flare up to meet Manguso’s fretful, disconsolate presence.

MangusoColor.jpegTheir relationship fills in and fades as the narrative proceeds – sufficient story and structured time to provide an armature for Manguso’s less manageable but more critical obsessions. “I’m working on a book about a man who jumps in front of a train,” she writes. “I have no interest in hanging a true story on an artificial scaffolding of plot, but what is the true story? My friend died – that isn’t a story.” But by page 30, where the above excerpt appears, the reader may be expecting that scaffolding. She wants us to let go. At the time of Harris’ death, Manguso was enjoying a fellowship in Rome, though “enjoying” isn’t what she is inclined to do. She recalls, “On my way to the hallway bathroom I always ran into someone who would greet me with some well-meaning banality that wrapped me in frustrated loathing and prevented me from writing for the rest of the way.” Dear Reader, she implies, listen to me but spare me your usual banal response to my topic.

The Guardians comprises a series of brief reflections. At mid-book, we find the following:

“I read the obituaries every day to learn what sorts of lives are available to us, to see an entire life compressed into a few column inches, to fit the while story in my eye at once.
I say I’m interested in life, but really I want to play a little game with Death. I want to lie down next to him and smell his infected breath.
After he pins me with his rotten arms and burst knees, gray bone showing at the joint, I want to wake up alone with bruised eyes, his hair in my teeth. And then I want to whisper a little story about him inside the safest locked room in the world.”

With exquisite emotional restraint stiffened with candor, Manguso introduces her own suicidal experiences and antipsychotic treatments. The Guardians of her book’s title are the institutional caregivers who administer drugs like Haloperidol which may trigger akathisia (“extraordinary suffering, intolerable restlessness, unbearable discomfort”):

“If there were a way to describe the experience of this disorder more clearly, clinicians might better be able to diagnose it, treat it, and prevent its common outcomes, which in the literature are overwhelmingly identified as homicide and suicide -- specifically by jumping.”

But the Guardians, she suggests, are also all of us. So if The Guardians has a “message” for everyone, it concerns a communal irresponsibility or benightedness toward the unstable. Manguso’s anger simmers in her clear, blunt sentences.

MangusoBW.jpegHowever, the prevailing tone of The Guardians isn’t pique but stricken wonder. The narrative unveils its own anxieties piece by piece, thereby underscoring its necessity. Its authenticity is unmistakable. The discursiveness of most contemporary illness/death memoirs usually incorporates some degree of complementary and often illuminating quasi-research backstory on the sickness at hand. But Manguso bridles: “Don’t tell me about the rich variety of mourning customers throughout the world from the beginning of civilizations to now – I don’t want to know about customs. I want to know about my particular grief, which is unknowable, just like everyone else’s.” Unknowable may be too sweeping a conclusion, but I get her intent.

MangusoS.jpegMore specifically she writes, “I can’t measure my grief and I can’t show anyone what color it is. I can offer testimony that others can reject or accept on faith, but my grief is always just my grief, unobservable by anyone but me, and then imperfectly. And maybe it isn’t even grief anymore; maybe it’s envy of people who aren’t grieving, or shame that my grief is lasting so long when I’m not even part of Harris’ family.” There is also the shame of resorting to inadequate language, and the shame of grief when one’s behavior toward the deceased is recalled as less than considerate.

At the outset of the memoir, Manguso recalls going to the beach with Harris on the day after 9/11. “The waves were enormous. I lost my sunglasses and was thrown ashore. A red bruise swelled on my hip.” Something about that short paragraph stuck with me through the end of the book. Something about its trivial hurt after an unspeakable tragedy, and the clenched impulse to record it. The Guardians is utterly loyal to its own fearful, selfish, compulsory brilliance.

[Published March 6, 2012. 112 pages, $20.00 hardcover]

Re Memory

"There is also the shame of resorting to inadequate language, and the shame of grief when one’s behavior toward the deceased is recalled as less than considerate."

I blinked and flinched as I recalled some of my own memories. As I imagined that Manguso's extraordinary book -- driven by a rigorous self-examination of complex emotions, whether "fearful, selfish" or "compulsory" -- is as all such excellent writing is, an eventual process of grief & compassion. May it be so.