The Guardians: An Elegy

 

By Sarah Manguso

Parul Sehgal, Plain Dealer, February 2012

On July 23, 2008, a young man leaptto his death in front of a Metro-North train in New York City. He was identified later as Harris Wulfson, a beloved Brooklyn, N.Y., musician whohad suffered from intermittent psychotic episodes.

He is eulogized in a new book, “The Guardians,” by Sarah Manguso, author of “Two Kinds of Decay.” Theirs was a platonic friendship, a twinship tinged by Eros.

Manguso had just returned to New York after a year abroad when she heard that Harris had escaped from a psychiatric institution and committed suicide. Her book is as much a memoir of mourning, of piecing together the puzzle of Harris’ final hours, as it is a struggle to find a vessel to contain her pain, the search for the right kind of book to write.

“If I were a journalist I’d have spoken to everyone and written everything down right away,” she writes. But she’s afraid, she says, afraid to talk to his parents, his last lover or the man that drove the train. She retreats, skipping the memorial, refusing the family’s invitation to visit Harris’ apartment to choose something of his to keep.

“I wasn’t going to continue without Harris,” she writes. “Everyone else could mourn, obedient, but I would not participate.”

She surrenders to her grief. “I don’t try to hide it. I let it get all over everything.”

And yet her book is unfailingly controlled, even coy. How little we learn about Harris; Manguso gives us only staccato summaries: He made music. He liked whitefish and Manhattans and girls. He’d forget to flush the toilet — but abruptly, she veers off: “He timed his jump in front of the train, and that’s the story.”

Out of pain or delicacy, she returns obsessively to trace the contours of her wound, but there, too, she flails. “I can’t measure my grief and I can’t show anyone what color it is,” she protests.

Manguso is a deliberate and exact stylist; the only elements inscrutable in this book are inscrutable by design — a fact that does little to mitigate the reader’s frustration. Harris remains hazy, as does Manguso herself. She keeps the reader at arm’s length, making the stray tantalizing statement (“I’ve taken antipsychotics every day for more than a decade and don’t plan to stop”) and referencing her own time spent in a mental institution without elaboration.

It’s a pity. The book’s most fluent moments are when Manguso writes freely and frankly (in her elliptical fashion). She describes sharing a loft with Harris and a few friends, sleeping in a corner cordoned off by hand-sewn, red-velvet curtains. (The hand-sewn curtains, of course, recall that most famous evocation of youth and regret in New York: Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That,” and, at her best, Manguso has some of Didion’s rhythms, her watchfulness and remove, her way of drawing attention to her own fragility.)

This is finally a fiercely personal book — not an intimate book. Manguso has written it in a fragmentary, private language for the friend she loved in life, and whom, in death, she protects from our gaze. We cannot know him. We cannot measure her loss.

Manguso writes that the readers’ expectations of her book will be colored by their own experiences with death. “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.”

She’s wrong. We want this book to be about her and Harris. We want particulars. We want reason — perversely, perhaps — to mourn him, too.

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