‘I believe in the possibility of unendurable suffering,’’ writes Sarah Manguso in the early pages of “The Guardians.’’ The affirmation establishes Manguso’s credibility as an author capable of real empathy, rather than plain old sympathy - she allows herself a sort of practical acceptance alongside her mourning. The book is an elegy to her late friend Harris, a composer who bore intermittent bouts of “florid psychosis’’ before jumping in front of a subway car.
As she recalls her friend (a summer in Cambridge between college semesters; standing side-by-side at the bank of the East River, watching the Twin Towers burn) and tries to reconstruct what could have happened in the 10 hours between his hospital sign-out and third-rail leap, it’s clear that Manguso feels herself to be failing. She’s able to summon Harris for us, but he remains a devastatingly spectral presence in her own life: “As far as my mind was concerned, at all possible points in time, my friend was a dead man.’’ She comes up short in her attempt to literally animate the unliving, but “The Guardians’’ succeeds as both a eulogy and a genre-less book.
Manguso, who has previously written memoir, short stories, and poetry, here combines all three. She remembers Harris, she remembers herself, she makes up stories to fill narrative gaps in her friend’s life. And when all else fails, she avails herself of verse. When poets write prose, they risk exquisiteness - the images are too fey, and the words sickeningly “lovely.’’ This is seldom Manguso’s problem: She remains precise and truthful throughout, and only occasionally slips into the stylistic tics of the Poet: the melodramatic tendency toward the one-sentence paragraph, the existential proclamations (“We are matter.’’), the stale vocabulary of vulnerability (“unveilings’’). But there’s a flipside to reckless lyricism, and fortunately most of the book is made up of it. Reminiscing about another friend’s premature death, Manguso confesses, “I doubled over and called out my denial, no no no no, like an animal making its one sound.’’ It takes real attention to meter to write a sentence that spookily good.
Though there’s no deficit of the personal pronoun, Manguso’s book never strays from its subject: Harris. Her divulgences don’t seem all that confessional, mostly because they’re in service of something - and someone - else. When Manguso says she’s “taken antipsychotics every day for more than a decade and [she doesn’t] plan to stop,’’ we understand the motivation for the disclosure - she knows what unendurable suffering is, and Harris’s choice doesn’t strike her as psychotic at all. “Suicidal ideation is tricky,’’ Manguso writes. “When the vision appears, it seems determined, already done. Then the vision subsides, and you see the rest of your possible life stretching out before you untainted.’’
Like most mourners, Manguso is unwilling to universalize her suffering. She doesn’t want to reduce Harris to an idea, nor should she. The word “particular’’ is oppressively common to almost all grief memoirs. In “The Guardians,’’ though, it appears only once. And yet, what a particular book this is. On the day Harris’s body is identified, his friends and family all assemble in a house - Manguso doesn’t even know the owner. She remembers that “a perfect Manhattan stood in a tumbler collecting sweat’’ and that the room was full of fresh-cut flowers and cakes. Manguso is there, undoubtedly, but she hovers. The scene has a Mrs. Dalloway-like quality to it: a friend lost to “the pathological self-murdering part of him,’’ “an enormous garden throb[bing] outside.’’ “I washed every dish I saw,’’ she remembers, “pacing myself so I never had to stop.’’ Describing minute gestures, individual objects, and granular thought processes can feel like a cheap trick in fiction, like a shortcut to realism. In memoir though, it’s necessary if we are going to believe someone’s memory of themselves, or of the people they loved most.Alice Gregory is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in New York magazine and the Poetry Foundation. She can be reached at aliceagregory@ gmail.com.