The Art of Losing: Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend

Amy Butcher

New York, NY: Picador, 2013. 128 pages. $15.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

In her heartbreaking new work, The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend, Sarah Manguso negotiates her response to the loss of her friend, Harris, whose traumatic suicide startles her into exploration. “The Thursday edition of the Riverdale Press,” she begins, “carried a story that began, ‘An unidentified white man was struck and instantly killed by a Metro-North train last night.’ The train’s engineer told the police he was alone and that he jumped. The police officers pulled the body from the track and found no identification.” What follows is a gradual accumulation of knowledge, a sorting of the known from the unknown, that stretches far beyond the newspaper’s block print, rendering a far more complicated event.

Manguso assembles a careful cataloging of truths, a seemingly exhaustive inventory of footnotes. Harris was a man who “liked whitefish,” she writes, and “liked Manhattans.” He owned a magical refrigerator and spent a summer squatting in a friend’s family’s vacation home. By insisting upon every facet of Harris’ life as significant and worthy of rumination, Manguso quickly cultivates an environment of inquiry; every moment is called into question, probed as if it might provide explanation that bridges one nonnegotiable truth—his death—to another. “Harris,” she writes, “played music, wrote software, wrote music, learned to drive, went to college, went to bed with girls, moved to New York, moved to California, went to graduate school, moved back to New York, and went to more graduate school,” and while he suffered from three separate psychotic breaks, these incidents, Manguso asserts, “occupied almost no part of his actual life.” Memorializing and probing Harris’ every preference, Manguso asserts that while certain moments may seem indicative of future turmoil, it is impossible for anyone to know the exact significance of the events that led him to that station where he died.

The resulting prose is also predicated on a critique of contemporary media: the way traditional prose, which aims to streamline information into a more immediate, compact form, inevitably invents narrative. In its summation of a life, journalism often revises one’s identity and overwhelmingly invokes permanence. Manguso prose is infused with grief, evoking a startling blend of lyric contemporaries, including Joan Didion, John D’Agata, and Maggie Nelson. Manguso works comfortably with both lyric and factual prose, crafting vignettes that move fluidly through time and disrupt any sense of recovery narrative or momentum. While her work argues that the nuances of a life lend as much value as the gruesome details of a death, Manguso’s writing is emboldened by her resolute assertion that Harris was, indeed, very ill:

During the first [psychotic] episode he hired a lawyer, convinced his colleagues were conspiring against him. He called his sister, not knowing where he was, thinking he might have been slipped something. She told him to lie down and rest. He called himself an ambulance, sent it away, drove himself to a gas station, parked the car, got out, slept behind a trash bin. A talking dog appeared and told him to enter a house. The door was unlocked. The people inside called the police, and Harris was arrested and brought to the hospital.

In her experience of Harris’ death, Manguso found herself repeatedly renewed and overcome by bouts of pain. This grief is illuminated by heartbreaking passages where even the inconsequential takes on meaning. Upon spotting Harris lookalikes in public, Manguso connects her emotional investment to the curiosity of a domesticated animal.

When I find a substitute Harris, I always think of my friend’s cat, Roy, who loved playing with the laser pointer. My friend would hand me the device and say, “He knows it’s fake but he loves it anyway,” and I’d send the pink laser-dot over the rug, the floor, the vertical front of the sofa, and Roy would slap away at it, trying to pin it with his soft orange paw.

If Manguso is the cat, memory is the laser. The Guardians is a work less interested with the stories we tell others as the ones we tell ourselves. In what seems one of the most particularly observant vignettes, Manguso writes, “Harris called one day to ask whether he should clean his toilet seat or just buy a new one. I told him to clean the old one, described with agitation a vision of a landfill occupied only by toilet seats, their owners having thrown them away rather than cleaning them, a mountain of cream-colored plastic rings flecked with dark yellow. I don’t know if he ever cleaned it.” Then: “Why do I remember this?”

Perhaps this is what is just below the surface of Manguso’s work: an inquiry not into Harris’ death, but into the significance of love and memory. The Guardians is an ode to wonder: a book for those who remain unsatisfied by the simple answers. One truth remains unequivocal. “Suppose your whole life surges back to you,” Manguso writes of the moment just before death. “I try to believe that Harris summoned all the beauty of his life. I’m comforted when I remember that energy that appears missing has just gone somewhere else, has been surrendered to the system of the world.”

“And above all,” she writes, “it must be very beautiful to be finished.”

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