For years, the writer Sarah Manguso has kept a rather detailed diary. It takes the form of documents on her computer labeled by year and the common title Differential Equations. She updates it daily, sometimes more often.
To some, that might sound like a chore. For Manguso, as she describes it in her intriguing new book, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, it provided something more like pleasure: “I write the diary instead of taking exercise, performing remunerative work, or volunteering my time to the unlucky. It’s a vice.”
The diary, she says, is almost a million words long. Ongoingness is far shorter. It does not republish the diary, or even excerpt it at all. (In the epilogue, Manguso admits she thought of including quotes from the diary, “[b]ut I didn’t want to read the thing, so I tried to reason my way out of the task”.)
Instead, Ongoingness is something of a meditation on the practice of diary-keeping. Manguso traces the way her desire to record things has changed over time. At first, she thought there was a tragedy in forgetting: “The catalogue of emotion that disappears when someone dies, and the degree to which we rely on a few people to record something of what life was to them, is almost too much to bear.” But later, in her 40s and with a small child, she found her dairy entries getting shorter and shorter: “Reflection disappeared almost completely.” This later attitude is what she calls the “problem of ongoingness”.
When I read Ongoingness I was very struck by it but when I went to recommend it to a friend I was at a loss to describe it. I hoped when I spoke to Manguso she’d offer me a shorthand. But though friendly and funny on the phone – a good deal of Manguso’s appeal in print, too, is her mordant sense of humor – she has too precise a mind to agree with any category I try to offer. “I was a terrible academic,” she tells me at one point.
I mentioned some ad copy her publisher, Graywolf Press, had given me. It described Ongoingness as continuing “to define the contours of the contemporary essay”. Manguso characteristically wants to qualify the statement: “It would be a little grandiose for a writer to declare that she is helping to define anything.”
Her last two books, The Two Kinds of Decay and The Guardians, were a lot more easily called memoirs, though. They each had an emotional hook a publisher could latch on to. The first traced the fallout from Manguso’s diagnosis with a rare autoimmune disease in college, one which left her on a course of steroids for the rest of her life. The second was about the suicide of a composer friend, and the twists and turns of the grief that followed for her.
Yet when I bring up the word “memoirist” to Manguso instead, her reaction is immediate: “I don’t love the word.” It’s not that she looks down on memoirists, she says, only that she doesn’t enjoy reproducing anyone’s model. “And that sounds a bit like I’m saying I’m so highbrow because I don’t follow conventions. That’s not really it. It’s just that it doesn’t bring me pleasure, to reproduce many conventions.”
She has a point. Both of her previous books were digressive and epigrammatic, and they they too inspired generic confusion. In fact, a reviewer of The Guardians at the New York Times wrote that it “resembles nothing so much as a certain kind of fiction: the book is so densely webbed by contradiction, rhetorical self-abnegation, error, Gothic gruesomeness and kooky spirituality that you may finish it feeling as if you’ve spent the time with an unreliable narrator out of Nabokov.”
Fiction won’t work for Ongoingness, though. So I try another category, one I think of as more open-ended. I ask Manguso about whether she considers herself a poet any more – she has published two books of poetry. She isn’t completely comfortable with that title either.
“Whatever allegiance I had to the title of poet or poetry came from my not being a skilled or experienced enough writer to write very much,” she answers, thoughtfully. “Which is not to say that I write to length now, 20 years in.” She did do a poetry MFA at the University of Iowa, but as soon as she got in, she says, “I started writing prose. Short prose. And many of those pieces are in my first, so-called poetry collection, which was sort of very gently criticized as containing too many prose poems. And maybe it does, I mean how many is too many?”
Manguso’s art is poetic, though, in the sense that she manages to pack a lot of meaning into very few words. She has a certain kind of faith in sentences. The title of Ongoingness came from a 2007 profile of the New Yorker writer George WS Trow. It traced the arc of Trow’s career, which was marked by brilliance but eventually disintegrated with his growing mental health issues. It mentions that on a road trip he had told a friend, “The ongoingness of it is, frankly, a problem.” Manguso never forgot it.
Is Trow, another epigrammatic and difficult-to-categorise writer, an influence? “To the extent that that sentence has haunted me ever since I read it, sure.” Manguso is uncomfortable with the language of influence, she says. “But there are certainly things that were important in awaking and changing my mind. For me it’s usually not like magnum opi or a writer’s entire oeuvre that does that. It’s usually just a sentence, or a passage, or maybe an entire book?” The doubt she attaches to the last item on that list feels very appropriate to a writer whose own oeuvre is a kind of ode to the power of concision.
stem: michelle dean, sarah manguso
titel: my diary-keeping is a vice
bron: the guardian
perspectief: her diary is almost a million words long, but her new book, about diary-keeping, includes none of them. It’s typical of this mordantly funny, uncategorisable writer