Mass Culture

Very Cold People by Sarah manguso. new york: hogarth. 208 pages. $26.

The cover of Very Cold People

THE SCHOOLGIRLS HAVE BEGUN TO BEHAVE STRANGELY. At night, they gather to perform incantations that involve crystals and candle wax, delicately dripped. One of them hides sambuca in a mouthwash bottle and slips out for parties after babysitting jobs. Another attempts suicide by smashing a thermometer to drink the mercury within, but only succeeds in cutting herself. The last stops eating altogether, unless she can cadge food off of someone else’s plate.

What could be wrong? Perhaps there is some dark, supernatural presence at work. We are, after all, in Massachusetts, home of Salem’s doomed witches. But beneath the crude, particular rituals—the bottle downed guiltily in secret, the glass shards meeting flesh—lies a more generalized kind of violence. In dabbling with rebellion, the young women wish to shore up some control over their lives, though not for any self-affirming purpose. The goal, instead, is to make themselves disappear. We begin to hear the refrain of a familiar dirge: there go those ruined, desperate girls, lost long before their prime.

Ruth, the narrator of Sarah Manguso’s arresting debut novel, Very Cold People, is one of these ill-fated girls, or was once one. Now an adult, Ruth recollects her childhood in the 1980s in Waitsfield, a fictional Massachusetts suburb populated by the descendants of real patrician families: Lowells, Emersons, Cabots. Ruth’s middle-class parents, though, are “illegitimate Waitsfielders,” second- or third-generation Americans as opposed to tenth- or eleventh-generation WASPs. They bear their differences more overtly, too. In a town of houses painted “historically correct” colors, theirs is a violent shade of purple; on weekends, they visit dumps and discount stores to pick out detritus they might repurpose. “My parents weren’t after shiny things or even beautiful things,” Ruth says of her family’s magpie-like habits. “They simply liked getting the things that stupid people threw away.”

The “stupid people” in question are their fellow Waitsfielders, whose daughters Ruth falls in with at school. Some, like her, come from homes that seem burdened and fragile, if not quite dysfunctional; others have housekeepers and the consciously cultivated manners of the Brahmin-adjacent. Ruth approaches these friendships with interest and wariness, the latter seemingly born of her mother’s own agoraphobia. (“Was it crowded?” she asks her daughter fearfully when Ruth returns from social events.) Even as Ruth grows close to the other girls, she remains curiously disconnected from them, and intensely aware of their faults: their guilelessness, their pressing need to be liked by boys. This is a portrait of the sort of acute discomfort with the world that is often taken as a sign of psychic fragility. But it is just as likely to be a symptom of adolescence—when one’s body, suddenly altered, seems sharply at odds with its surroundings, and angst overrides the gossamer days of childhood.

Here and in her previous nonfiction work, Manguso favors spare, staccato prose, divided into unindented and liberally spaced paragraphs. Dialogue is signaled by italics instead of quotation marks, as if to preclude any interruption on the page. Such a style might be called minimalist, as the writing of Jenny Offill, who shares Manguso’s penchant for fragmentation, has been described. But minimalism can suggest a willed resistance to tension, a drive for order; Very Cold People revels in danger, disarray, and the ugly mash of pride and resentment that invariably characterizes life on the outside. Certain descriptions have the disquieting hum of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, another fragmentary novel that unfolds as a series of shadowy reminiscences. In Hardwick’s novel, New York City reveals itself as a site of decay and dissolution; in Manguso’s, brutality undergirds mundane Waitsfield, occasionally breaching the surface. A school auditorium, decorated in red velveteen, is “like the inside of a slaughtered animal.” In winter, a coughing girl’s phlegm hurdles “through the lacy ice like a cannonball.” These similes carry the force of a muttered insult, or a glare directed through narrowed eyes; they add up to an image of Waitsfield as a lurking predator, readying itself for attack.

Manguso’s nonfiction books tend to take shape around halting, nonlinear processes—recovery from illness, coming to terms with a friend’s suicide, recording and interpreting experience in a diary—in which progression matters less than rumination, and backsliding is unavoidable. Very Cold People, by contrast, creeps forward slowly but continuously, like a car with shoddy brakes. Ruth grows from a gawky, skittish child into a withdrawn teenager who collects good grades “like a miser, knowing that they would get me out of Waitsfield someday.” She collects neuroses, too: compulsive hair-pulling, tucking food she can’t bring herself to eat into her pockets. The other Waitsfield girls develop in tandem, with their own peculiar behaviors and obsessions, often involving alcohol, self-harm, or some dangerous combination of the two.

These habits are evidently a response to a seismic social shift: now that they are recognizable as half-formed women, malevolent adults have begun to pursue them. No Waitsfield man, it seems, is without some lecherous motive; a swarm of fathers, uncles, teachers, and older students descend upon Ruth and her friends, who submit to their aggression in a kind of stupor. The girls seem certain that what they are experiencing is merely the prologue to full-blown romance. “How old-fashioned and almost tender, this so-called molestation,” Ruth thinks, as a gym teacher gropes her in front of “forty other kids and teachers.” “I understood that it was wrong, but, after my first thought, which was that maybe this is normal, I found it sweet.” Insofar as pervasive harassment can offer instruction, it might be this: what is “normal” may merely be the slick, enticing narrative that propagates the abnormal. But to understand and acknowledge this offers little in the way of consolation; how much easier it is to swallow the dazzling, fulsome lie.

There is something vertiginous about the way Ruth amasses these stories of abuse, preempting close examination by leaping from one harrowing anecdote to the next. “I like to visit with the exhausted girl who once was me,” Ruth reflects, though the novel feels less like a prolonged social call than a barrage of glancing encounters, as if to linger on any one event would provoke untold agony. The form is warranted: how else to represent the way trauma ruptures memory? Yet in its rush to equate girlhood with inevitable harm, the novel runs the risk of turning Ruth into a stolid, remote custodian of pain—closely attuned to the many varieties of misery blooming around her, but uninterested in the people affected. Through Ruth’s eyes, other characters can seem desiccated or slight—her friends receive precise physical descriptions, but are mostly denuded of personality—or else bloated and cartoonish, like prop villains. Ruth’s mother, Linda, is a kind of bestial Mommie Dearest, a font of vicious indifference (“Vomit,” she says, when Ruth tells her that she needs her support). Sometimes her needless, blazing cruelty can border on stage-mom parody, as when she yells at Ruth, a skillful pianist, during a practice session: “That was a disgusting display of nothing!”

Linda, too, was abused as a young woman, though the partial disclosure of this shared experience does little to unite mother and daughter. “I needed to know so I could start building a container for that information, to keep it safe, so it wouldn’t join the rest of my memories and contaminate them,” Ruth says. This might constitute an act of self-preservation, but it is also indicative of the detached, clinical way Ruth considers the suffering of others—as a talisman to hoard and analyze, cleanly severed from its owner.

Of course, trauma can provoke precisely this strain of skewed, claustrophobic thinking. Internal fixations jostle for attention with the outside world; wounds themselves become needy, consuming things. But if Ruth’s blinkered state is realistic, it can also feel flat and oppressive. One craves some sense of contrast or relief, which the novel supplies only fleetingly. Toward the middle, Ruth and her family move to a more desirable house in Waitsfield, previously owned by a widowed Cabot matriarch, Winifred. When Ruth’s parents hire a boy from the neighboring Emerson family for an odd job—with the purchase of their historic house, they now have the minimum status required to fraternize with Massachusetts’s elite—Ruth rewrites the story from Winifred’s perspective, imagining the widow lusting after a boy she pays to paint her house. Here we see that Ruth is capable of inhabiting a perspective other than her own, through which she might voyeuristically explore her own nascent desires. Reconstructing snatches of Winifred’s life—her relationship to her children, her marriage, even her death—becomes a liberatory creative project, a partial antidote for Ruth’s own discontent.

Yet these scenes are all too brief, and the novel soon shifts toward conventionally sordid fare. Revelations of suicide, incest, and teen pregnancy abound among the Waitsfield girls; by the end, Ruth has had herself committed to a psychiatric ward, confident that the only way “for a girl to get out of Waitsfield,” other than dying or falling pregnant, is to “go crazy.” By all indications, Ruth isn’t actually psychotic. But the punitive mental health system moves swiftly against her, culminating in a mesmerizingly horrible episode of sexual violence—confirmation, as if we still needed it, that there are no saints or sanctuaries in dismal Waitsfield.

From here, the aftershocks arrive in quick succession. Ruth is released, moves to New York after a few months, and resolves only to return to visit her parents for the holidays. This is indeed how the end of childhood can feel—the long-awaited conclusion flicking by, too frantic and jumbled to register as triumphant. It is a fitting end, too, for a novel that dwells in the uneasy borderland between the ordinary and the extraordinary. What Ruth has just experienced defies reason, but she has survived, moved forward. We learn that she is now a mother, too, with a child “who has grown up knowing ordinary love and whose life is unremarkable.” There is finality to these judgments, but it is difficult to believe them completely. Can “ordinary love” present without its opposite also materializing at times? What vagaries underlie an “unremarkable” life? Manguso seems invested in raising these questions, even though Ruth does not ask them herself.

Perhaps this is one more aspect of Ruth’s myopia: we are left to fill in what she cannot see. This does not mean discounting her perspective; rather, it is to become a kind of close collaborator in the work of narrative, untangling her memories and drawing meaning from them. Manguso’s achievement is to lead us into this role, which seems an act of delicate optimism in itself. To offer a witness is to disturb the barriers trauma raises around the self, and to prove that devastation need not be absolute.

Sara Krolewski is a writer living in New York.