Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22.00 (hardcover)
The novelist Richard Yates, discussing his masterpiece Revolutionary Road, once told an interviewer that the success of his writing depended upon his “avoiding the terrible traps that lie in the path” of autobiographical writing-”self-pity and self-aggrandizement.” In trying to decide what makes poet and short story writer Sarah Manguso’s debut memoir, Two Kinds of Decay, feel so successful, so brazen in its emotional clarity, it would be easy to chalk it up to language-to the crystalline quality of perception and sheer accuracy of observation evinced in each of her meticulous sentences. But one can’t help but sense that something else is going on in this beautiful book, something tied to avoiding those traps Yates cautioned against.
Take the most memorable, haunting passages of Two Kinds of Decay, a narrative of illness that eschews even conventional chapter and paragraph form and works instead in a series of two, three, four page sections of narrative, in splashes of text separated by space breaks rather than by paragraphs. Doctors have just discovered the severity of the auto-immune disease at center of this book. They think initially it is Guillian-Barré, a disease that causes its victim’s body slowly to become paralyzed, only to later decide is it a similar but more insidious disease called CIDP. Manguso must undergo frequent blood transfusions and apheresis, a kind of cleaning of her plasma. Here she is on the feeling of being infused, in a chapter entitled “The Taste”:
The cold infusions went in very close to my heart. I need to describe that feeling. I want to write a metaphor that will make a reader stop reading for a moment and think, Now I understand how cold it felt.
But I’m just going to say it felt like liquid, thirty degrees colder than my body, being infused slowly but directly into my heart, for four hours.
Why are these sentences so haunting? Is it the simplicity, the absence of indulgent metaphor, the directness of opting against simile? Manguso’s talents as a poet are evident throughout this book, in its concision and precision, but so is a kind of empathy she’s able to establish in a passage like the former. I’m watching out for you, reader, she seems to say; only I know how horrible my experience was, but I’m not going to evoke the kind of overwrought pathos so many popular memoirists indulge. Or take the lines that follow, from the same chapter:
The albumin had a taste. To be more specific, the albumin had two tastes, because the hospital bought albumin from two different manufacturers . . .
One company’s albumin was the color of light beer and the other company’s was the color of lager. And the dark albumin tasted worse.
I never could decide whether it was chemical bad or organic bad.
I had to taste it for three or four hours, unabatedly, and there was nothing I could do to change the taste of it. It wasn’t touching the surface of my tongue, but it was going into the blood in my heart, which pumped it into every cell in my body. It was in my tongue.
Yes! we think. The taste! Tell us about the taste! However you want to tell it, tell it to us straight. There’s something so evocative in these lines, and the innumerable lines like them throughout Two Kinds of Decay. We learn later that only the taste of wintergreen candy could overcome that albumin taste, and Manguso uses the opportunity to consider the generosity of a nurse who has provided the salve of that candy. We get this nurse only briefly, but her care tells us more about chronic illness than any measure of blood might.
So maybe this is what strikes us most in Manguso’s prose. We’re led by the parade of empathetically drawn characters that accompany our narrator through her ordeal-the parents, nurses, doctors, lovers and friends we meet only briefly, who come to inform us in a way that lets us in so fully to the experience of the wraith of illness, we gain just what we want from a memoir: Not self-pity. Not self-aggrandizement. Only what we need-the reality, the truth, told with all the efficiency and honesty possible.