For more than a year, I've been on a reader's grief patrol. Memoir about a mother dying of cancer? Story of a husband's stroke? Taking care of a declining relative on a remote barren coast? Yes, yes, yes, all those and more. I try to swear them off, but I'm still drawn to these books. They are to me a form of secular reckoning; the faithful have their way of facing the big questions of life and death and sorrow. Me? I read.
"I believe in the possibility of unendurable suffering," writes Sarah Manguso in "The Guardians: An Elegy." This appears on Page 5 of the book, early enough to give fair warning to those who might find such ideas too much to bear. Apparently you don't if you've read this far.
The book is about Manguso's friend Harris, who, in a psychological breakdown, threw himself in front of a train. Or rather, it turns from that incident to her feelings about the loss of her friend and the closely threaded space between them. It is a slender, understated book about loving someone and, with the fracture of an unexpected death, being left behind.
This territory has been visited recently by other notable female authors — Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates writing about widowhood and Didion about the death of her daughter. Manguso's attention to friendship is on younger, less well-defined ground. What does it mean in our culture to lose a friend? Can the loss be as deeply felt? If they loved each other, were they not lovers?
Manguso addresses this immediately, boldly, bodily. "I really wish I could show you my penis, he said, as if it were a painting or a country," she writes. This was because he was, by all accounts, well endowed, enough for it to be a topic of discussion around the Manhattan loft they shared with a number of roommates in the late '90s. "If we'd ever been to bed, we could never have talked about his penis as we did."
Later, in small asides, we learn more about their relationship: They met in college, he brought her home enough times that she became friends with his family. They were together on 9/11 when they watched the second tower fall. Together, they left the city, finding refuge with his family; Harris gave her comfort.
Many of the expected details are stripped away: We don't know their alma mater, the exact year, or what he studied when he eventually moved to California for graduate school. This paring underscores that this is not a book about Harris but about his absence and its effect on Manguso. She writes in short, painful bursts. She tries to put into words what it was like for him to jump in front of the train, to be struck by the train. Only three-fourths of the way through do we learn his last name, Wulfson, as if to keep readers from running off and learning the facts of the case.
The facts are not what Manguso is after. In the book's first pages, she admits she is not a journalist, that she would rather not speak to his doctors or learn more than she knows. What she tells us: Harris was a student, a composer of music, a computer programmer and two-time graduate student. He had three psychotic breaks, the first two characterized in part by paranoia.
In the third, after checking himself into a hospital, he walked out the front door and was gone for 10 hours before he jumped in front of the Metro-North train in Riverdale, N.Y. "I want to say that 10 hours are missing from Harris' life, but that isn't right," she writes. "They were in Harris' life. They just weren't in anyone else's."
Harris was medicated, taking a medication not too different from that which Manguso herself had taken. She relies on her medicine but also mentions problems she's experienced (her last book, "The Two Kinds of Decay," was about living with a rare autoimmune disease). Through the window of grief, she looks into akathisia, a condition of extreme physical agitation that can be an adverse reaction to some medication. She leans on this as a possible explanation for what happened to Harris.
Although a reason in the end seems unreasonable. It was an absolutely unnecessary death in that Harris was a well man who killed himself in a sick episode, but his illness was pitched at such a key that it made his suicide possible. The efforts to find a why are less convincing than the efforts to reconcile with the empty space behind.
That space was greater because Manguso had a major fellowship in Rome the year before he died. At a memorial, Manguso avoids speaking to his last girlfriend. "Maybe she didn't want her own intimacy threatened by someone who had known her lover ten times longer than she had," she writes. "I didn't want my own intimacy threatened by hers.... I missed the whole last year of it, and now there isn't any of it left."
Manguso writes that the motive behind this book is to keep his death from haunting her. Yet like Didion's magical thinking, Manguso finds herself looking for evidence of Harris' presence, hoping for a ghost. She sits on a bench in Central Park dedicated to him and waits for a sign; to an outsider, the T-shirt she sees as significant seems sadly random. And yet. In showing how the moment of his death has receded into insignificance, she writes, "no one could possibly be able to remember the mundanities of July 23, 2008." Except me. It was my birthday.