I downloaded this book the other day because I had some time to read, a bit of leftover holiday money to spend on my Kindle, and the memory of listening to the author have an interesting conversation on my favorite podcast. A memoir about a friend’s suicide isn’t normally what I’d gravitate toward, but subject matter is never what is most important to me. I thought about Darin Strauss’s amazing Half a Life and what a brilliant, nearly flawless book he spun out of guilt and personal tragedy and bought this one.
I suspect that The Guardians needs the subtitle “An Elegy” to stave off readers’ expectations that they’re embarking on a traditional narrative. Told in fits and bursts, Manguso writes in an impressionistic way, evoking rather than describing, hinting rather than making concrete. In some cases, this works well. Since the book is about a beloved person who is now unattainable, unknowable, disappeared, it follows that we, the readers, should have as tenuous a grasp on him as his dear friend, the writer, now does. As much as she wants him back, she can’t have him. The problem with the reader not being able to have him either, though, is that I needed something else. In his absence I needed an acute sense of what was happening in Manguso’s life, or–even better–some stellar sentences.
This book is not bereft of beautiful writing, but it actually taught me that when I say I want beautiful sentences, that all I care about are the sentences, I don’t actually mean it. I did get some of those sentences here–Sarah Manguso is a talented writer. But it turns out I also really, really care about structure. I couldn’t get a handle on the shape of this book–if I couldn’t look at what percentage of it I’d already read, I would have had no way of knowing if I were near the beginning, middle or end of it. I felt as if it constantly reset. I wished over and over that Manguso would stick with a section and write until the end of it. Instead, the book is broken up into extremely short pieces that deliver an idea or a moment and then end. Each section does not build on the last. I can’t tell you all how many times I’ve gotten the note “this isn’t over yet” when I’ve prematurely ended a story or a section of a story. When I do it, it is because the story is just about to get hard. Hard for the characters, hard to write. So I stop short and hope no one will notice and that it will be good enough. Someone always notices.
In this case, is this start-stop-reset pattern a metaphor for grief? It very well might be. The shape of this book, and how ultimately unsatisfying I found it, could possibly compare to the shape of losing a loved one. I couldn’t get over the feeling, though, that this book was important for the author to write but not important for me to read. I came across this article by Manguso’s friend’s cousin about his death, and found it far more moving. I’d be interested to hear if someone who’d been through an experience similar to Manguso’s felt closer to this book than I did. I hope I never find out for myself.