The Broken Elegy

The Guardians: An Elegy BY Sarah Manguso. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 128 pages. $20.

The cover of The Guardians: An Elegy

Sarah Manguso’s prose elegy for a friend who died when he jumped onto the tracks as a Metro-North train pulled into the 254th Street station in Riverdale is odd, fragmentary, obstinately unbalanced. On July 23, 2008, musician and software engineer Harris Wulfson checked himself out of a psychiatric ward and died roughly ten hours later, his actions and whereabouts in the intervening hours never accounted for. Manguso admits up front that she has little access to the events leading up to the death. She had been in Rome, on a writing fellowship, for the last year of Wulfson’s life, and she lacks either the wherewithal or the desire to investigate. The book is neither journalism nor personal memoir. She notes facts and traits she associates with Wulfson not in order to bring him to life for the reader, as a more conventional tribute might have done, but with a flatness of affect that speaks to the inadequacy of words, which can never bring back those we have lost. In the case of some other book, it might be a criticism to observe that the author’s private language has only been partially translated into a meaningful idiom, but here it represents the book’s most distinctive stylistic achievement: Manguso’s embrace of rhetorical failure itself constitutes an unusual and strangely affecting lament.

By declining to answer the common emotional charge of elegy, to move and be moved, Manguso has written a fitting companion piece to her 2008 memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay, which tells the story, in short titled chapters of elliptical prose, of the author’s decade-long battle with a mysterious autoimmune disease, a tale of pain, deliberation, and paralysis both literal and figurative. “This is the usual sort of book about illness,” Manguso, who is also a poet, writes there. “Someone gets sick, someone gets well.” Despite that disclaimer, The Two Kinds of Decay delivers conventional emotional and narrative satisfactions, each chapter built around an anecdote or observation or topic (steroids, desk calendars, secrets), and the chapters accumulating into a mosaic that feels aesthetically whole. The Guardians, on the other hand, ruminates compulsively on suicide and what Manguso calls “the black box of a forsaken mind.” Her own history of depression and suicidal ideation stands behind the litany of other deaths she offers up. With the writer and performer Spalding Gray’s fatal jump from the Staten Island ferry, Manguso writes, “I’d advanced one lurid death closer to my own.” And after a colleague, a poet, dies from a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head, Manguso states: “Afterward I felt an echo of that old feeling—that the line was moving, that I was now one death closer to the threshold—but it was a faint echo. I’ve felt insulated from my death since I began taking this new medicine. I am no longer moved to write poetry, but I traded poetry for a longer life.”

Standing behind these individual deaths is the mass death of thousands of New Yorkers when the towers fell. Manguso and Wulfson spent the day together on September 11, 2001, watching what was happening in Lower Manhattan from Kent Avenue in Brooklyn and riding the LIRR afterward to stay with Wulfson’s family in Great Neck, and the memory of that day and those deaths was subsequently “written over” by Wulfson’s own. The loss of a friend doesn’t fall under the same kind of clearly comprehensible rubric that might cover the death of a family member or a romantic partner, but Manguso insists on the importance of bonds based on neither blood nor intercourse, and illuminates such closeness by way of a characteristically oblique and lovely analogy, comparing what happened between her and Wulfson to the wordless intimacy that occurs when two runners on adjacent treadmills settle into the same pace. Some understandings, she implies, aren’t communicable through words. So it’s appropriate, if potentially frustrating to the reader, that Manguso refuses to answer the questions she raises, even the ones about her motives for writing the book. “What do I wish—that I could have stopped Harris from ending his life?” she asks. “That I could have given him permission to end his life, permission he didn’t need? What do I regret—that in the end he didn’t need me, and now I can’t need him?”

In something like a parody or deconstruction of the conventions and tactics of investigative journalism, Manguso does tease the reader by holding out one possible key to the mystery, an ominous theory based on her own experience over many years of taking psychotropic medication. In 1999 in Iowa, Manguso writes, newly prescribed the antiemetic prochlorperazine (also an antipsychotic), she was overtaken as she ate a cheese sandwich at a pharmacy lunch counter by “an overwhelming need to move all the muscles of my body at once, continuously, in order to combat the sensation of my entire body waking up from being asleep.” In 1901, a Czech doctor coined the term akathisia for this sensation, and clinicians subsequently reported that it contributed to impulsive acts of violence and suicide. At an earlier stage of illness and treatment, Wulfson had told Manguso he was experiencing something she recognized as akathisia, and she speculates as to whether this intensely unpleasant bodily sensation might have been the precipitating factor in his death.

As medical and personal history, Manguso’s account is scrupulous in its refusal to go beyond the known facts. As an account of why a close friend died, however, her explanation—i.e., the turn to akathisia—remains psychologically and epistemologically unsatisfactory. The Guardians stands in relation to the clearer resolutions of The Two Kinds of Decay much as Joan Didion’s Blue Nights does with regard to Didion’s earlier memoir of grieving, The Year of Magical Thinking. For Didion, the loss of a husband is devastating, unthinkable, but it is a loss that becomes comprehensible by way of mourning and the passage of time. The loss of Didion’s daughter, on the other hand, leads to a near breakdown of narrative form and the abandonment of any notion that sense can be made of it at all. Similarly, for Manguso, the suicide of a friend represents an irreparable form of damage, one marked in, but not rendered comprehensible through, the genre of broken elegy.

Jenny Davidson is the author of five books and teaches eighteenth-century British literature at Columbia University. Her next novel, about role-playing games and the occult archaeologies of Morningside Heights, will be published in 2013.