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Montage

Speak, Memory

March-April 2015


Ongoingness: The End of a Diary is a memoir that makes only one confession. In it, Sarah Manguso ’96, a poet and contributor to Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, and The Paris Review, reflects on her oldest project and vice: the journal she kept meticulously for 25 years. The volume that results is slender and often elusive. It’s a commentary on a much longer text that reproduces none of those 800,000 words. It’s also an autobiography unweighted by personal detail or even proper nouns—those specifics that lend texture, trigger electric jolts of recognition, or provide footholds in a stranger’s life. She has audited her archives in order to understand her need for them.

Manguso has produced an essay in the oldest sense, a scrupulous and ruthless weighing of a subject. Ongoingness traces her obsession with documentation back to its source, and then forward to its eventual dissolution. The diary began when, at the age of nine, she was given a journal she used at first only out of duty; it lapsed when her son was born. During the decades between, she added to and revised the text several times each day. In a world that has invented the selfie stick, such recordkeeping seems so endemic as to be unremarkable. Yet as Manguso maps her compulsion, it proves wider and deeper. The prevailing sociable and networked narcissism imagines an audience. Her diary was a project so purely private it remained inviolable. “I wrote it to stand for me utterly,” she says, explaining her indifference to concealing it from prying eyes: “I might as well have hidden myself from view.”

The book shifts focus when she relates the life events—marriage, births, deaths—that, by defying discrete containment, forced her to accept memory as capricious, and history as continuous. Motherhood especially altered her powers of perception. During pregnancy, Manguso suffered from amnesiac spells. Later, tending to an infant’s constant needs exhausted her capacity to meditate on her day, or even to recall words. Her child’s life summoned her to a fuller participation in their shared present. Eventually, the daily entries became more sporadic.

The memoir interrogates the diary at every angle, particularly as a means of mastering time. Through the diary, Manguso tells us, she thought she could preserve the present even as it elapsed. She could guard against her disappearance after death—or worse, a forgetting so total that the past might never have existed at all. Her work is full of such precise, philosophical parsings. Rigor brings vitality and wit to her work. At one point, she romantically likens her method of memory to “listening to a broken tape by hand-feeding it one last time through the tape player,” an idea that she says captivated her generation. Then she admits, “I never did it. Maybe everyone was lying. No matter. It’s still a decent metaphor.”

 

Ongoingness appears after a year in which autobiography has driven the literary conversation. In fiction came Karl Ove Knausgaard’s latest installment to My Struggle, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, and Jenny Offil’s Department of Speculation. Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, won the National Book Award in young adult literature. Most proximate to Manguso’s project were the releases of highly personal nonfiction collections by Megan Daum, Roxane Gay, and Lena Dunham, as well as the more journalistic essays of Eula Biss and Leslie Jamison. It would be a mistake to ghettoize this cohort into a demographic subgenre of “women essayists,” yet they undeniably respond to a shared cultural moment, and register the same societal pressures. As a result, their work has evolved some common features.

The contemporary personal essay habitually makes a certain swerve: when the author feels compelled to announce that she fully expects to be disliked or dismissed. Then she renews her commitment to authenticity, warts and all; the act of writing is framed as a bold transgression. Whether defensive disclaimer or preemptive strike, the subtext is always the same—“I am watching you watch me”—and wrapped up in the bravado is a gambit to gain the reader’s sympathy and respect. This reflex appears as often in print as it does in online outlets: Daum’s The Unspeakable, Gay’s Bad Feminist, and Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl all have prefaces working overtime to justify their very existence. That they take pains to be taken seriously is understandable, but disheartening: imagine if, in the run-up to the vault, Olympic gymnasts first had to argue the point value of each twist and tuck.

Manguso dispenses with such gestures. “For better or worse, I write about myself,” she said in an interview with Guernica. In a roundtable of nonfiction writers for Gulf Coast Magazine, she shrugged off the eagerness of publishers and critics to define generic boundaries: “That taxonomy conversation, with its obsessive ranking and sorting, to me just reeks of fear.” Ongoingness begins with a coolly straightforward assertion: “I started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago. It’s eight hundred thousand words long.” She doesn’t fuss about courting the reader. Her position in the literary landscape is evidenced by her resolute focus, manifest in her two prior memoirs.

The Two Kinds of Decay documented Manguso’s long siege by a rare degenerative illness that destroyed the protective myelin sheaths of her nerve cells, causing paralysis. Her treatments began in her junior year of college. She waited for hours as a machine cleaned and replaced her blood, and endured tests that applied electric shocks directly to her nervous system. Clinically recounting these experiences, Manguso declines to reach for the easy metaphor—and yet it’s difficult not to understand them as a template for her almost frightening discipline as writer. Her persistent themes start to take shape: her sense that time seems too “full”; her need to measure it in writing, even as she knows the activity “is designed to distract me from what’s really happening.”

Her second memoirwas occasioned by a friend’s suicide. The Guardians: An Elegy, its narrative untidy as grief, contemplates his suffering. Chronology explains nothing; Manguso reconstructs events as nonlinear ruptures and ripples, shifting between different tenses. We are unmoored in her memory, as she narrates a scene:

One more day at the beach, just the five of us from Chambers Street. Harris drives us in his car…I’m smiling now, remembering. Still smiling. Harris is just a shimmer, a null set. He reflects my grief, and it’s so bright I can’t see much behind it, but behind the brightness is a human shape. I look at him, then look away. I was so lucky.

The triumph of The Two Kinds of Decay lies in defiant control; the gift of The Guardians is in the complexity of acceptance. Where the first establishes a method for Ongoingness, which it most closely resembles in style, the second offers an emotional approach.

Leaner than its predecessors, Manguso’s third memoir is also composed of fragmentary sections, never more than a few paragraphs long, and sometimes as short as a few sentences. In Ongoingness, however, each page brings a fresh thought or recollection, untitled. This form doesn’t seem driven by a conscious attempt to defy convention. Rather, it feels structured by necessity. Through these stanza-like passages, Manguso commands attention. She builds a corridor of interconnected chambers, which invite readers to linger, to pass through quickly, to return and dwell.

It’s tempting to describe her style in negative terms—unsparing, uncompromising. A typical passage might read, “One afternoon I declined a ride from one city to another with a friend who didn’t survive his twenties. I didn’t think I’d survive the afternoon without spending four hours on the bus back to college thinking and writing about what had happened during my trip.” In its way, her prose is as finicky as poetry; it lives and dies by the way it’s arranged on the page. (Manguso’s poetry, though equally cerebral, is less astringent.)

Ongoingness seems like the product of absolute reduction. Specifics have been seared away: where the narrator went to college and where she now teaches, her favorite band and the painting she fell in love with, the elderly writer she corresponded with before his death, and the names of her friends, husband, and son—all are a curious blank. She leaves plenty of white space, which toward the end of the book is interrupted by bursts of color, as the vibrancy of the present demands her attention, or summons an infant memory. A blue stuffed animal makes an appearance, as does the brightness of her boy’s hair, or the rainbows of her husband’s youth. Stripped of excess, the sentences are so stark as to seem opaque.

 

The one point when Manguso seems to falter is after Ongoingness ends. In an afterword, she explains her choice not to include the original diary, and details her process of rereading the 23 files, selecting excerpts, and then dispensing with this strategy altogether. This is the first time that she goes out of her way to explain herself; her coda, like those prefaces by fellow authors, betrays the apparent confidence of the rest of the book. The sentences grow longer and more prosaic. It’s perhaps best to consider these final pages akin to a director’s commentary: some may find this insight illuminating; others may find that this postscript dilutes the work itself.

In his 1972 book Ways of Seeing, the art critic John Berger draws a distinction between naked and nude female subjects, a metric since applied to writerly self-portraiture. Readers expect memoirs to orient themselves around a set of polar axes: growing pains versus progress gained, exposure versus disguise, confession versus composure. Manguso’s work defies these dichotomies; its closest relative among schools of painting might be Abstract Expressionism. She weaponizes solipsism to dive into the bedrock of human experience: memory faltering in the face of mortality; the humility commanded by time; the impossibility of taking the full measure of one’s life. The question that pervades all of Manguso’s work, and forms the heart and vascular system of Ongoingness, is: Why write? That question’s obverse reveals itself as: How to live? 

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