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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 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 ...
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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 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.
“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
Henry James's famous exhortation to "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost" clearly hasn't been lost on Sarah Manguso. In The Two Kinds of Decay, her fiercely observant, wrenching 2008 memoir of her struggle with a rare, life-threatening autoimmune disease that struck in her early twenties, Manguso wrote: "This is suffering's lesson: pay attention. The important part might come in a form you do not recognize."
Exquisite focus is also key to Manguso's The Guardians, a bittersweet elegy to a friend who "eloped" from a locked psychiatric ward on a torrential July day in 2008 and, some ten hours later, threw himself in front of a Metro-North train in Riverdale. Although they were never lovers, Harris Wulfson was one of Manguso's closest friends for ten years. A brilliant musician and composer, Harris, as she refers to him, had suffered three psychotic breaks in the three years prior to his death.
Manguso brings her own experience with anxiety and depression — and with the potentially calamitous side effects of psychotropic medication — to bear on her friend's death. Intensely concerned with the various ways memories and feelings can be evoked through the artful manipulation of language, she explores the extent to which we are our friends' guardians and, in outliving them, the guardians of their memory.
It is not essential to have read Manguso's compact memoir to appreciate The Guardians, but it helps explain her extreme reaction to Harris's death. Chances are, reading one of these two books will make you want to read the other. I read her new book first, and, not knowing her back-story, had the erroneous impression that the primary source of her past misery was psychological. She mentions being in lockdown for suicidal despair, and her eleven years on psychotropic medications. Her struggle with a terrifying physical disease called chronic idiopathic demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (in remission for years) gets no explicit mention, perhaps because she feels she put it to rest in The Two Kinds of Decay.
Reading the volumes out of order also highlights Harris's absence from the earlier book — making one wonder if his importance to her increased in retrospect. Manguso doesn't flag the fact that, in the years that Harris was struggling with mental breakdowns, her literary star was rising: a Rome Prize fellowship sent her abroad for what turned out to be the last year of his life — which was also the year that The Two Kinds of Decay was published to great acclaim.
The question arises: why would one want to read about such unrelievedly grim subjects? The answer lies in the writer's literally transcendent prose. 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.
How does Manguso pull this off? First, by making us understand who Harris was to her. While she questions the intensity and validity of her grief given her non- privileged mourner status as neither girlfriend, wife, nor family member, she travels in memory to his downtown Manhattan loft, where a changing cast of recent college graduates, including herself for a time, took up residence. As in her memoir, she is refreshingly matter-of-fact about sex. She replays conversations about Harris's reportedly "majestic organ," which they could discuss "as if it were an amazing restaurant in another town" precisely because they weren't physically intimate. Writing with just the right blend of wistfulness and whimsy, she adds, "Now it is among the great mysteries."
She recalls Passover at his mother's house on Long Island, where they enjoyed the thought that his grandmother might mistake them for a couple. On September 11, 2001, they stood huddled together on the Brooklyn side of the East River watching the Towers collapse before heading out to Great Neck: "And of course the whole memory of that morning has been written over with what has happened since: My friend, who stood with me and helped me, who hugged me as we walked back toward the city from the river shore, is dead."
Manguso returns to July 23, 2008, repeatedly, trying to imagine Harris's last hours and moments. Her belief in "the possibility of unendurable suffering" prevents her from being angry at her friend. She explains the akathisia she believes drove him to his death — unbearable discomfort and restlessness that are known side effects of the medications he'd been put on in the hospital. (What enabled him to act on this misery, however, was fatal human error: being carelessly let out of the locked ward.)
A self-described former poet who "traded poetry for a longer life," Manguso is fascinated not just with memory and language but with narrative form. Fiction, one gathers, eludes her. She writes, "I have no interest in hanging a true story on an artificial scaffolding of plot, but what is the true story? My friend died — that isn't a story." In a 2009 interview, she described her work-in-progress as a novel about surveillance and paranoia, called The Guardians. In the book that turned out to be a meditation on grief and loss rather than a novel about surveillance and paranoia, Manguso comments: "The ten missing hours would make a good story if I liked making up stories, but I don't," and then adds a puzzling coda: "I try not to make anything up, and I fail every time."
Hmmm. Whatever else is fabricated, and however artfully conveyed, the sentiment here is real: "Love abides. There is no other solace."
Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
Reviewer: Heller McAlpin
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