The writer Sarah Manguso is a cut above. In her latest, The Guardians: An Elegy, Manguso’s full range of talent is on display. Her sentences are hauntingly resonant, her diction precise, her writing clear. She has masterful command of the material. Her experiences—the processing of grief over the suicide of a close friend named Harris, her past issues with mental illness—are laid full bare for the reader. And it’s all totally uncut, unfiltered, offered, ready for rejection or praise—a brave work, revealing all that vulnerability. But her work’s rhetorical strength is stymied by a surprising lack of engaging material in the text.
The Guardians is, for Manguso, a much-needed act of catharsis, or at least a necessary stage in a profoundly sad process of understanding. For the reader? It’s admirably messy but ultimately distant.
The Guardians begins with a newspaper summary of Harris’s suicide. The then-unidentified man hurled himself in front of a Metro-North train at the Riverdale station in the Bronx. From there, Manguso makes her motives for writing The Guardians clear:
I tried so hard not to notice Harris’s death, I barely remember it. Time eroded the memory of it even as it gathered the dust of what’s happened since. But I need to try to remember it now so I might keep it from haunting me.
In this process of remembering Harris’s passing, Manguso covers various moments of their friendship. When they first met, when they shared—with many other Gen-X bohemians—an apartment on Chambers Street, when they would meet each morning at the train station, when they spent the indescribably frightening and tense and unsure hours after 9/11 together, etc. From their ten-year friendship, Manguso selects seminal—a word which seems kind of yearbook-y right? still somehow less yearbook-y than precious—moments that illustrate the closeness between them.
But we often see Manguso without Harris before his suicide. We see her suffering from crippling anxiety and mental illness in Italy. We see her remarkably unhappy after moving to Los Angeles. We get hints at Manguso’s past—her racked with the sort of maladies that require heavy sedation. This sort of mutual endurance of profound and not-at-all-normal unhappiness keeps the two in the same frame, the same context of anguish.
We also learn a great deal about what made Harris such an endearing figure: his penis was the stuff of lore, he liked whitefish, he didn’t listen to music on the subway because he yearned to hear the sounds of the city, he composed music. But he also had episodes—three, in fact, the final resulting in his hospitalization and subsequent suicide. He said things that seemed more abnormal than quirky: he once asked Manguso about his being a one-way refrigerator—he puts food in, but never takes it out. He wondered about the existence of a two-way refrigerator, one that allowed him to store and later retrieve food.
I find myself, at the present moment, fondly remembering various details in The Guardians—mainly those involving Harris. The moments of the elegy that don’t involve him—though the narrative is always, always, always dimmed by Manguso’s sadness re: Harris’s suicide—but rather focus on Manguso’s troubles, can be terribly uninteresting. From her inability to write a page in Italy to her marital troubles, banal introspection rules. Whenever Manguso ruminates on these difficult times, she reaches deeper and deeper and deeper inside and—well, that’s it. She does not reach inside and out at all. The occasion of her constant grief and wallowing is not really there at all.
Perhaps it could be said that Manguso reaches in when focusing on her own troubles and out when she focuses on Harris’s life—as David Shields blurbs—but I’m unconvinced. Harris’s death is treated as much as a moment in Manguso’s life as the end of a young man’s. What about the others in Harris’s life? His parents appear often, but their presence is muted. What about his colleagues? When his music school colleagues mail Manguso Harris’s score of one of her poems, they’re just faceless figures on one end of a grief-ridden transaction. What might they have felt? Manguso doesn’t delve into that.
And Manguso admits that this is her process. I can’t fault her for promising one thing and delivering something else entirely. From the opening pages:
If I were a journalist, I’d have spoken to everyone and written everything down right away…If I were to write responsibly, with adequate research to confirm certain facts, I’d have to ask people about the last time they saw or spoke with or heard from my friend Harris. I’m afraid to ask his parents those questions. I’m afraid to talk with his last lover. I’m afraid to meet his doctors and the man who drove the train.
This frankness is nothing short of admirable. She has command over what she’s going to write—and she knows it’s irresponsible, this focus on herself and her relationship with Harris and this freezing out, as it were, of many other prominent figures in his demise. It’s refreshing to revisit—after finishing—this opening.
But this is a choice, and the wisdom of a decision is up for debate. And this decision, I believe, is what makes The Guardians feel so emotionally distant. Manguso is a supremely talented writer, and the prose stands up well against her previously published work. But what this book displays in rhetorical talent, it lacks in engaging substance. It is, perhaps, too personal—not in what’s revealed, but what’s going on: this is Manguso’s process, and she owns it. It’s not something easily shared.
Some moments, however, are powerful in what they say about the grieving process. Late in The Guardians, Manguso describes a dream about Harris. She notes her newfound autonomy in addressing his death.
The thing that was his body stirred and seemed to understand. Very softly, as I let the bone slip through my fingers, I told him goodbye. I was completely present in the dream. I knew in the dream that I could let him go, that it was the end.
It’s something of a triumph for Manguso, this dream. She is present, and can, seemingly, understand the end of her dearest friend’s life. This autonomy is important, and represents a powerful moment in her journey to understanding. It’s a moving moment.
As a reader, however, I feel like a spectator to this great writer’s grief. I feel sad about Harris. I feel sad about Manguso feeling sad. But feeling about someone else’s feeling doesn’t really feel like feeling, or at least doesn’t cut it for me.
Perhaps we—The Guardians and I—are just two ships passing in the night. Maybe I’ll understand when I’m some years past twenty-three. I truly hope it’s me, that it’s two ships passing, or that it’s a matter of tenure, because it’s obvious that Manguso has poured so much of herself—of her own unquantifiable grief—into this work, that I feel so guilty to feel so relatively unmoved.