The Guardians: An Elegy
  • The Guardians: An Elegy
  • The Guardians: An Elegy

The Guardians: An Elegy

by Sarah Manguso
     
 

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The Guardians opens with a story from the July 24, 2008, edition of the Riverdale Press that begins, “An unidentified white man was struck and instantly killed by a Metro-North train last night as it pulled into the station on West 254th Street.” Sarah Manguso writes: “The train’s engineer told the police that the man

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Overview

The Guardians opens with a story from the July 24, 2008, edition of the Riverdale Press that begins, “An unidentified white man was struck and instantly killed by a Metro-North train last night as it pulled into the station on West 254th Street.” Sarah Manguso writes: “The train’s engineer told the police that the man was alone and that he jumped. The police officers pulled the body from the track and found no identification. The train’s 425 passengers were transferred to another train and delayed about twenty minutes.”

The Guardians is an elegy for Manguso’s friend Harris, two years after he escaped from a psychiatric hospital and jumped under that train. The narrative contemplates with unrelenting clarity their crowded postcollege apartment, Manguso’s fellowship year in Rome, Harris’s death and the year that followed—the year of mourning and the year of Manguso’s marriage. As Harris is revealed both to the reader and to the narrator, the book becomes a monument to their intimacy and inability to express their love to each other properly, and to the reverberating effects of Harris’s presence in and absence from Manguso’s life. There is grief in the book but also humor, as Manguso marvels at the unexpected details that constitute a friendship. The Guardians explores the insufficiency of explanation and the necessity of the imagination in making sense of anything.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 2008, Harris Wulfson, Manguso’s longtime friend, walked out of a mental hospital and into the path of an oncoming train. It was two days before his body was identified. In this affecting narrative, poet and writer Manguso (The Two Kinds of Decay) threads selected remembrances into an elegy—for Harris, who was a musician and composer, kind and funny and capable of behaving badly, but also an elegy for youth, that time of unstable arrangements and shifting roommates; for Manguso’s past, filled with illness and suicidal thoughts; and, perhaps most of all, for a friendship. Manguso reminds us that long friendships are a palimpsest of love and disappointment and memory; old friends are a compass for one’s life. Manguso puzzles over the thought of what becomes of a friend after death? as well as feelings of grief, guilt, and anger, and what separates the mentally ill from the rest of us (less than we think, she concludes). In the end, Manguso writes with assured and poetic prose. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

“‘Nobody understands how I feel,’ we often think (mistakenly) in times of loss. But Manguso not only understands, she can articulate it in the precisest and most unexpected of images—an unrelated car accident, a bowl of Italian candies, a swim in the ocean. What results is a memoir that reveals not the just intimacies of the writer's life, but of your own. Most moving is that The Guardians covers a subject so rarely recognized in our society, the grief from the death of a friend.” —Leigh Newman, Oprah.com, “Book of the Week”

“Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians goes to hell and back . . . The book majors in bone-on-bone rawness, exposed nerve endings . . . With The Guardians, I did something I do when I love a book: start covering my mouth when I read; this is very pure and elemental, and I wanted nothing coming between me and the page.” —David Shields, Los Angeles Review of Books

“A bittersweet elegy to a friend who ‘eloped’ from a locked psychiatric ward . . . [Manguso] explores the extent to which we are our friends’ guardians and, in outliving them, the guardians of their memory . . . Manguso’s writing manages, in carefully honed bursts of pointed, poetic observation, to transcend the darkness and turn it into something beautiful. The results are also deeply instructive, not in the manner we’ve come to fatuously call “self-help” but in the way that good literature expands and illuminates our realm of experience.” —Heller McAlpin, Barnes and Noble Review

“Shortly after returning home from a fellowship year in Rome, poet and memoirist Sarah Manguso received word that her old college friend Harris had fled a psychiatric hospital and jumped in front of a train. In The Guardians: An Elegy, the writer explores, in prose that singes with precision and honesty, the many ambiguities surrounding the tragedy . . . A long friendship is a crucial orientation point, and Manguso captures with great delicacy the spinning compass of her grief, and its accompanying jumble of anger, disappointments, corrupted memories—and love.” —Megan O'Grady, Vogue

“In The Guardians, Sarah Manguso holds up two kinds of love: the love for someone willfully at one’s side (the new husband) and the love for someone willfully gone (the dear friend, a suicide). The limitations and complexities of romantic love played out in the present are here haunted on all sides by the simple expansiveness of platonic love, especially as seen through the lens of mourning. The living cannot compete with the dead. But marriage has its rights before any friendship. The mystery of where Manguso’s heart will land propels us through this vivid meditation.” —Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?

“Sarah Manguso’s is a disarming and yet infectiously charming style, one that mixes intimate personal reflection with curiously distanced observations of the world. What this ends up feeling like while reading The Guardians is a tension that’s both inviting and simultaneously alienating, a wounded sort of intellect that wants to protect and yet expose itself to the reader. It’s a beautifully sad meditation—as exhilarating as it is devastating.” —John D’Agata, author of About a Mountain

Kirkus Reviews
How does the suicide of a friend affect someone who has come perilously close to suicide herself? That's the question Manguso (The Two Kinds of Decay: A Memoir, 2008, etc.) wrestles with in this purgative memoir. The friend was Harris, a brilliant but troubled musician who escaped from a psychiatric ward in 2008 and threw himself in front of an oncoming train. No stranger to depression herself, Manguso attempts to figure out her friend's motivation. Was it a reaction to an antipsychotic drug known to make patients maddeningly restless? How did he leave the facility so easily? Could she have saved him? What if she had married him? Could he have lived a happy life, or would it always have been one of "unendurable suffering"? As in The Two Kinds of Decay, which recalled her own debilitating struggle with a rare illness, Manguso is adept at breaking her memories into small, vivid pieces. She scrutinizes everything from the language of death to her own close relationship to it: "I say I'm interested in life, but really I want to play a little game with Death. I want to lie down next to him and smell his infected breath." The author displays brave writing throughout, but she is also self-absorbed. She is so fascinated and fixated on trying to palpate the contours of her own grief that the subject gets lost. Who is Harris? Ultimately, this so-called elegy is more about the author than the subject. Manguso is an intriguing, talented writer, but this book is missing something vital. It has the weight of the author's loss without the weight of her experience.
The New York Times Book Review
Much of [The Guardians] force emanates from the atmosphere of confusion Manguso summons, whirling from cadaver to apparition to psycho�pharmaceutical side effect: grief deranges us. Ultimately her subject is less the man who threw himself in front of a train than what traumatic loss strips from a soul.
—Paul Festa

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374167240
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
02/28/2012
Pages:
128
Product dimensions:
5.74(w) x 8.54(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

 

The Thursday edition of the Riverdale Press carried a story that began An unidentified white man was struck and instantly killed by a Metro-North train last night as it pulled into the Riverdale station on West 254th Street.
The train’s engineer told the police that the man was alone and that he jumped. The police officers pulled the body from the track and found no identification. The train’s 425 passengers were transferred to another train and delayed about twenty minutes.
*   *   *
If I were a journalist I’d have spoken to everyone and written everything down right away. I’d have gone to the hospital and met all the people who were on the psychiatric ward at the moment Harris walked out the door, and then this book would be a more accurate rendering of the truth.
If I were to write responsibly, with adequate research to confirm certain facts, I’d have to ask people about the last time they saw or spoke with or heard from my friend Harris. I’m afraid to ask his parents those questions. I’m afraid to talk with his last lover. I’m afraid to meet his doctors and the man who drove the train.
For three years I’ve studied klezmer orchestration, the physics of rainstorms, maps of Eastern Europe. I thought I could trade my life for this useless, vigorous research. Since I was afraid to know so many answers, I didn’t ask any questions, and now it’s been three years. Now no one could possibly be able to remember the mundanities of July 23, 2008.
I could have waited until the end of my life to try to understand what happened on that day, saved it for last so I could know its whole effect, but instead I waited what seems an arbitrary, meaningless length of time.
I tried so hard not to notice Harris’s death, I barely remember it. Time eroded the memory of it even as it gathered the dust of what’s happened since. But I need to try to remember it now so I might keep it from haunting me.
*   *   *
We know the lost time begins just after noon because that’s what the desk nurse said, and we know it ends at 10:48 because that’s when the train pulled into the station. Sometime during that minute, maybe the engineer engaged the air brake. Maybe he blew the whistle. And before or after the engineer did those things, the train’s snub nose, or maybe its whole underside, just above the rails, made contact with my friend’s still living body.
I want to say that ten hours are missing from Harris’s life, but that isn’t right. They were in his life. They just weren’t in anyone else’s.
Though I wish I could, I can’t say Harris lay down on the train track and felt relief. I can’t imagine anything but torment, a blinding light, then nothing.
What I carry now—it brightens sometimes, without warning—is not his pain. This pain is mine, and unlike my friend, I don’t try to hide it. I let it get all over everything. I yell in my studio. I cry on the subway. I tell everyone I know that my friend threw himself under a train.
*   *   *
Some people believe that only the selfish accept suicide as a possibility, but I don’t believe suicide is available to everyone. It was available to me for a moment, and then a door shut between me and it. The door has stayed shut.
Some people think I should be angry at Harris, but I’m not angry. I believe in the possibility of unendurable suffering.
A man whose lover died slowly wants this book to be about love.
A man whose brother died quickly wants this book to be about rage. I couldn’t save my brother, he says. It never goes away, he says.
*   *   *
Sometimes I wish someone else had died instead—someone who blocks the open subway doors, for example, or someone who leaves piles of peanut shells on a train car. The fantasy comes to me in a flash—I can bring him back to life!
The woman who changed her baby’s diaper and left the filth on an orange plastic subway seat—I’d have traded her for Harris. And I’d have traded the man who unwrapped a candy, placed it in his mouth, dropped the wrapper on the platform in front of his feet, chewed, unwrapped another candy, placed it in his mouth, dropped the wrapper on the platform in front of his feet, chewed.
*   *   *
Harris 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, went to more graduate school. His three psychotic breaks occupied almost no part of his actual life.
During the first 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. After thirty-six hours of telephone calls his mother found him.
I don’t know what breed of dog it was. I don’t know what color the house was. I don’t know how the doorknob felt in my friend’s hand.
After the first episode, sometimes he’d stop speaking before the end of a sentence.

 
Copyright © 2012 by Sarah Manguso

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