The Guardians: An Elegy

Sarah Manguso

Published by Granta Books 7 June 2012

128pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Sian MilesImage of The Guardians

Sarah Manguso, shortlisted last year for the Wellcome Prize celebrating medicine in literature has, in The Guardians, made a  more extended foray into the uncharted territory which links the act of writing with the process of healing.

In a memoir of incandescent honesty, she attempts to trace the last ten undocumented hours in the life of her closest friend Harris who, three years earlier, threw himself under a train. The suicide took place after his escape from lockdown in a psychiatric ward, the technical term for which is elopement. The deep poignancy of the book lies in the narrator’s courageously punctilious examination of the possibility that he might have been running away to her. The unwavering steadfastness of her gaze on the evidence transcends survivor’s guilt and by the alchemy of her abiding love for him, turns it into a celebration of both his life and her own.

Harris was suffering from akathisia, a highly dangerous side-effect of anti-psychotic medication : ‘Failure to identify and treat this disorder can result in extraordinary suffering for the patient, which can in turn lead to preoccupation with the idea of suicide, specifically by jumping.’

In contextualizing their friendship, the narrator chronicles first the lives of New York college kids sharing cramped quarters and living a fairly easy, carefree life together. Soon after graduation, after Manguso begins her first job, the World Trade Center towers are struck and she witnesses people ‘jumping like angels’ from the inferno within: ‘I watched its hundreds of glass windows shimmer to the ground. The roof fell neatly downward erasing floor after floor, like an accordion but I remember this only because I remember thinking shimmer and accordion.

What sort of ‘normality’ was it that Harris was jumping from?    

In the aftermath of the attack, a free counselling service was set up by the city offering help to those suffering stress, trauma, depression or grief: New York Needs Us Strong! But when the narrator’s room-mate’s sister, a poet, called the service, the person on the end of the line had nothing to say to someone like her whose grief wasn’t further damaging the economy of a grieving city. In a society as focussed or obsessed as this with the capital tranquillizer of increased productivity, it is obliquely suggested that the only normal response is to go mad.

Manguso’s relationship with Harris is unusual and its idiosyncratic quality is what propels the narrative forward in a spasmodic form often evocative of sobbing.  As close as brother and sister, and frequently conducting sexual affairs with other people, they never go to bed together. Though it is clear he would very much have liked to, he never gets to show her, let alone play, the ‘majestic organ’ whose supremacy is attested to by many others.  He is ‘safe from the responsibility of its power’. They enjoy a mutually respectful privacy with each other in which she, as once at a concert ‘howling with lust’ for a boy with a white guitar, is given  ‘the gift of being allowed my longing’. 

This tender and powerful elegy develops into a nuanced reflection on mourning as we glimpse the radiance of what was once there and is now so achingly conspicuous by its absence.  Harris was a  musician by profession ; ‘the music he played was good.  The feeling he showed was delight in what was good…’ In a  photograph, ‘he beams so brightly he looks uncomfortable, as if the joy needs some greater outlet than his mouth, his eyes, his face…’ Later still, incredulous that the remains of her friend have been disintegrating for a year in a cemetery, whilst he is still so alive in her heart and soul, she comments, ‘I’m in denial not that Harris is dead but that he isn’t alive.’ There is huge power in such distillations of thought as well as the rigorous discipline involved in reaching their essential truth.

Often the prose takes a different yet equally persuasive conversational or domestic tone.  Grief over her loss is likened to the raising of a child: ‘I’m raising the tiny irrational child of Harris’ death.  It hides, then appears and demands all my attention and all my power.  I limit its range: When I teach I will not think of it; when I am with others, I will not think of it.  But then it surprises me and I have to go home and be with it, tend to it.

‘I take good care of the little infant death.  It’s learning to behave.

‘I don’t think I can live without Harris, I tell it.

You’d be surprised by what you can live without, it tells me.’

Harris’ death gradually comes to confirm the reality of mortality and the need to incorporate that understanding in daily life. It is a loving reminder that energy which appears missing has simply gone somewhere else, ‘surrendered to the system of the world.’

The bad death of H – for ‘Aitchie’; we hear him only once so tenderly addressed, in the book’s closing pages – is redeemed and vindicated by this extraordinary elegy on the life he shared with its constant and faithful author.  An example of the finest in contemporary American writing, this is an important and luminous book.














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