In her 2008 memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay, Sarah Manguso recounted her experience of living with the autoimmune disease she contracted in her early twenties. With The Guardians she again makes a study of her own suffering – this time in the wake of her close friend Harris Wulfson’s suicide. Harris threw himself under a train ten hours after escaping from a psychiatric hospital; he and Manguso had been friends for over ten years. Here she looks to medicine, religion, her own memories and accounts from his family in search of solace and understanding, all the while aware that there can be none.
The Guardians is essentially a series of observations on mental illness, grief, friendship and love, presented in a neat little volume of just over a hundred pages. It is neither poetry nor essay, but contains facets of both. Manguso tells her story in compact pockets of meditative prose that provide little sense of tension, momentum or the passing of time; rather, they feel numb – slow and deliberate, like the workings of a shocked mind brimming with information it cannot process.
The fragility of human perception and memory is central to the book. Manguso writes, “I am 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”. Intimate moments of friendship nestled amongst clinical contemplations become all the more poignant thanks to this acknowledgement, and it makes for some insightful passages on our inherent desire to attain understanding. “It is impossible not to read the photographs as summaries: Harris drinks coffee now because he is trying to waken from a terrible dream; Harris wears blue because it suggests heavenly grace; Harris squints at the bright light of the next world, at the headlight on the diesel locomotive.”
Manguso has a clear talent for succinct description. Her musings are generally intelligent, thoughtful, occasionally illuminating, and portrayed with remarkable clarity. It’s difficult to criticise a work like this; yet, I must confess to finding The Guardians as irritating as it is interesting.
The prose is eerily sparse, but the power of the short sentence is employed until it is all but exhausted. The convention-defying lack of structure takes on a repetitive structure of its own: a list of mundanities (usually two or three) followed by a final, casually impactful sentence (or vice versa). “Someone brought home a puppy. Someone put on a nitrous oxide puppet show… Someone tried to hang himself in the bathroom.” Manguso scorns others who dare attempt to take enjoyment in her craft: “A doctor could type a novel in his spare time as easily as I could trepan a skull in my spare time. The difference is that bad surgery is a felony, whereas bad writing is merely a moral offense.” And even the most interesting aspect of the book – its awareness of the impossibility of real accuracy – draws out something distinctly dislikeable: “Seems like a discovery, but I haven’t discovered anything, once again, other than my own cleverness.”
Manguso writes frankly, seemingly unafraid of bluntness, avoiding flourishes and ornamentation; but her style feels stifling. “When I say ‘My friend had a bad death’ you already know the sanctioned feelings… I want to set aside every expectation of how I should feel or act…” It seems that she has tried so hard not to write a “standard” elegy that The Guardians has become more cerebral than emotional. It can be approached from two angles: as a personal memoir it feels tight and constrained, but as a series of intellectual contemplations on love, grief and the human mind it is an intriguing work.