The Guardians: An Elegy
Many who read Sarah Manguso’s first memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay (2008), were in awe of the tale and its teller. At twenty-one, Manguso contracted an autoimmune blood disease that grew into nine years’ of transfusions, paralysis, and depression. It seemed the only way she could write about the debilitation was in short chapters, each a high-wire act that combined medical fact, incisive description, and intense but transient emotion. The terse style seemed to be holding back a floodgate.
Much of the same approach structures The Guardians, an ode on the suicide of her college friend and Platonic companion, Harris. Hospitalized three times for bizarre behaviors and depression, Harris was given antipsychotic drugs. It’s theorized that one side effect of those drugs is the rare akathisia, a kind of psychotic restlessness, which intensifies any driven behavior into mania. Escaping from a ward, the thirty-four-year-old wandered all day then leapt in front of a speeding train.
Manguso thinks Harris would not have done it had he not escaped, not been on drugs so long. As comparison, she briefly recalls when her endless days in bed and her deteriorating body drove her to extremes. Her acute anxiety, and some suicidal ideation, led doctors to treat her aggressively. But she survived. Harris didn’t. It might have been otherwise.
Permeating this dirge is the irresolvable death of a friend, a talented musician and composer whose innocence and sincerity was special to Manguso. There was his companionship in New York, where both resided on 9/11 and in the days after; his calling her from California so she could help him navigate the freeways; his warmth in the oft-unspeaking space between them. “It is a comfort to know,” she writes, “that the other will always love you more than you love him.”
One of Manguso’s approaches to grief is to recount her failures. As if such disappointments will balance losing Harris. She details several: her failure to finish her novel as a Rome fellow; her being in Italy when Harris died; her inability to write or imagine the last ten hours of his life; her numbness at his death when she first heard. Even though these things deepen the regret, she resists any false sentiment for not saving him.
“I want to set aside every expectation of how I should feel or act given that my friend had a bad death, and try to explain what has actually happened to me—if, in fact, anything has actually happened to me.” Such bafflement lands her squarely in the rattle-trap cage of grief: “It doesn’t matter if he thought of me, wanted to call me, missed, felt angry at me, loved me, but it’s impossible not to invite oneself into the black box of a forsaken mind.”
The juxtaposition of ever-changing material—remembering Harris, his good and his mysterious qualities, her closeness and distance with him, her meeting and falling in love with her fiancé (called “the man who would be my husband,” a tediously indefinite phrase)—keeps the sections separable, modulating and breathless. The prose stays loose, like coins in a pocket.
For me, Manguso’s writing conjures a comment by Virginia Woolf: “Words never make anything that is useful; and words are the only things that tell the truth and nothing but the truth.” Of course this contradiction sounds untrue. But its abstraction Manguso straddles deftly. She seems to fall into the uselessness of writing-as-mourning and then, just as quickly, bounces back to recollecting Harris’s humor, a perfect day with him at the beach, a few cryptic conversations.
In characterizing her knowing Harris and guarding his memory—quotidian and cool before he dies, intimate and confiding after—Manguso mines obscure suppositions more than objective certainties. This ambiguity is her strength, extending the elegy’s incompleteness: “I’m working on a book about a man who jumps in front of a train,” she says early on, to herself and to us. “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.”
What’s true, in addition to the facts, is the memoirist’s search for the core love between author and friend, which is over and ongoing. That’s the story of The Guardians.
Thomas Larson is the author of The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and The Memoir and the Memoirist.