Book Review

In Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso writes about her younger self, writing the diary she’s kept over twenty-five years:

I didn’t want to lose anything . . . I couldn’t face the end of a day without a record of everything that had ever happened.

I wrote about myself so I wouldn’t become paralyzed by rumination—so I could stop thinking about what had happened and be done with it.

At 800,000 words or roughly 8,000 pages, Manguso’s diary is longer than most. When she discusses her habit, she calls it a “vice.” She uses the word “obsessive” in a clinical sense. In an interview with Bookforum, Manguso said she originally envisioned Ongoingness as a researched nonfiction book about graphomania (compulsive writing). She worked on that version for two years, until pregnancy took over her body and her mind. “Emerging from the sickening exhaustion of the first few months,” she writes, “I began to see what work I might do next—this, an assemblage of already exploded bits that cohere anyway, a reminder that what seems a violent interruption seldom is.”

Ongoingness is a negative image of the diary, a spare and fragmented essay that investigates Manguso’s changing relationship with time. She works in short prose fragments, a style in which her poet’s sense of elision and gesture serve her well. (Her early work also includes two books of poems, The Captain Lands in Paradise [2002] and Sister Viator [2006], and a book of short fiction, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape [2007].) Manguso doesn’t excerpt or quote the text of the diary. She writes Ongoingness from a distance that might seem extreme, given its brevity (ninety-five pages, including the afterword). What results is pure narrative, shorn of the particulars that might give one moment or another too much weight—and, as she said in an interview in BookSlut, distract from “the intended sound of the thing.” To my ear, this is Manguso looking back at herself from across a great divide:

One afternoon I declined a ride from one city to another with a friend who didn’t survive his twenties. I didn’t think I’d survive the afternoon without spending four hours on the bus back to college thinking and writing about what had happened during my trip.

From this distance we see only the outlines of objects and people, but it allows her the long view. The “already exploded bits that cohere”—memories, mostly, and patterns visible from this remove—form a picture of the person she used to be, whose life was shaped, for a time, by violent interruption.

I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. . . .The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.

The end of a life—the potential and the actual—is at the heart of Manguso’s two previous memoirs. The Two Kinds of Decay (2008) chronicles her affliction with a rare, chronic, potentially fatal autoimmune disorder, first diagnosed while she was a junior in college, and the grueling, largely ineffective treatment she suffered until she found a doctor who recognized the disease. The Guardians (2012) explores her grief after the suicide of a close friend when they were both thirty-four. She doesn’t overtly connect these experiences to her obsession with loss, but the echoes are there. “I wanted to remember what I could bear to remember,” she writes, “and convince myself it was all there was.”

Manguso doesn’t just want to remember, though. She wants to trap each experience in the amber of words, to keep it whole and unchanged:

Another friend said, I want to write sentences that seem as if no one wrote them. The goal being the creation of a pure delivery system, without the distraction of a style. The goal being a form no one notices, the creation of what seems like pure feeling, not of what seems like a vehicle for a feeling. Language as pure experience, pure memory. I too wanted to achieve that impossible effect.

In the grip of her mania, Manguso records her life at the expense of living it, and her compulsion makes it difficult to find love. “I thought my momentum led to the next person, but in fact it only led away from the last person,” she writes. She is years into her marriage before she can begin to think of it as ongoing. “It changes form but is still always there, a rivulet under a frozen stream. Now, when I feel a break in the continuity of till death do us part, I think to myself, Get back in the river.”

Then, the divide. Everything shifts when Manguso’s son is born. Nursing creates hours and days of lost time, and she finds herself simultaneously diminished and enlarged by the experience:

I used to exist against a continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against.

My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world. I am a world.

“It’s important to me that I describe motherhood accurately and honestly,” Manguso said in an interview with Tin House,

. . . because until recently, I had been brainwashed into believing that motherhood was trivial. Until recently I thought my art-centered life was too important to pollute with such a mundane, common experience. . . . My refusal to have a child was an excuse I made to avoid the challenges of extreme love, and to avoid having to participate in dismantling the stereotypes that had brainwashed me.

Ongoingness is rooted in this dismantling. In the second half of the book, Manguso explores motherhood as a permanent shift in her state of being, and tries to capture the magnitude of that shift in language. It’s a difficult undertaking and she knows it. One problem is writing a common experience:“It’s terrifying and beautiful, and this has all been said before.” Also, the work of mothering is monumental, but like the diary, “most of what it includes happens in the present and disappears.” Manguso wisely trains her attention on what persists, claiming space in art for motherhood and reminding us that it hasn’t all been said before—not like this.

One day the baby gently sat his little blue dog in his booster seat and offered it a piece of pancake. The memory should already be fading, but when I bring it up I almost choke on it—an incapacitating sweetness.

The baby had never seen anyone feed a toy a pancake. He invented it. Think of the love necessary to invent that.



About the Reviewer

Anne McDuffie writes poetry, essays and book reviews. New work is forthcoming in Signs of Life