The Guardians, By Sarah Manguso

A search for sense in a friend's death

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The Independent Culture

Sarah Manguso must think I'm stalking her experiences. I reviewed her memoir about auto-immune disease, as I too had one. This second volume is about the suicide under a train of someone she knew with a psychotic illness, and I too have been there, with my sister in 1985.

Manguso's loss involved one of her oldest friends, Harris, a talented musician. This intense collection of thoughts explores her response to his death and searches for sense in the tragedy.

The structure is similar to Manguso's previous memoir – short sections dissecting aspects of her feelings and experiences in stark prose. As in her first book, in which she talked guiltlessly about endangering children's lives by driving purposefully into oncoming traffic, she either has little insight into how selfish she sometimes sounds or simply doesn't care. So she blithely reveals her seething intolerance of trite small talk and how she goes squatting in a friend's parents' home despite their express wishes. But with this indifference to how she appears comes a striking honesty.

She is only able to reflect on the death of Harris years later, as pain and denial made it impossible earlier. She is tortured by the 10 hours between Harris's escape from psychiatric hospital (with ugly irony, the official term is "elopement") and his jump.

Sometimes Manguso's directness sounds flat and emotionless, as when she describes the physical appearance of a mangled body, innards disgorged. I suspect this is the depersonalisation or derealisation that protects the bereaved by making death seem unreal, like an event on TV.

Homages to mutual acts of kindness humanise her. Like Joan Didion's memoir about her late daughter, there is a fragile quality, shattered reflections often segueing away from the subject of the deceased. Sometimes the result is disjointed – there are three separate sections on akathisia, the unbearable restlessness experienced by people taking older anti-psychotic drugs. Occasionally, the anti-establishment stance seems fatuous, as when discussing the clinical definition of psychosis, "loss of contact with reality", Manguso objects semantically to the word "reality", and muses: "How does one make contact with an abstraction?" But she is intelligent on the approach to defining psychosis that sees it as a continuum rather than a discrete entity.

Manguso's openness can be very funny. On anti-psychotics herself, she describes one that caused a tic every time she was insincere. Elsewhere she criticises doctors who consider themselves novelists, saying that she could trepan a skull, but the "difference is ... bad surgery is a felony, whereas bad writing is merely a moral offense".

At the unveiling of Harris's headstone, his grandmother told Manguso that they must move on. Manguso confesses that while her words sounded banal, as "I am interested in how people live to be 91, I noted them." One must be grateful that this gifted writer's own suicidal urges are long gone.