Lit

Review: Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments

Guest author Evan Bryson studied painting and writing in Indiana. He lives in Chicago and works in higher ed. Here he reflects on Sarah Manguso’s book 300 Arguments published by a Midwestern press.  

300 Arguments, Graywolf Press, Sarah Manguso

In Sarah Manguso’s short book, 300 Arguments, the vertiginous and catastrophic (affairs, suicide) slot side by side with the steady and fortunate (work, success). Manguso’s affability and concision insinuate a worldview anyone would be seduced to see by: mainly, a way of regarding all phenomena as delectable morsels. I don’t know if it’s all nourishing but by god, you can really shovel it down.

Everything goes down smooth: affairs, envy, failure, firsts, fucking, ghosts, lasts, marriage, politics, travel. If you’ve read Manguso before, this work is a precis of her oeuvre: Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape (2007), her chronicle of childhood; Two Kinds of Decay (2008), her chronicle of years living with a debilitating autoimmune disease; The Guardians: An Elegy (2012), her chronicle of friend’s death; Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (2015), her chronicle of graphomania and motherhood. These texts, already so economic, find themselves further reduced. This continuity reads less like report from successive temporal vantages than the refinement of a single essay, a single interpretation of an event. The event’s size happens to be the size of a life. It’s interesting and strange that it keeps fitting into smaller and smaller volumes.

Here is one passage from Ongoingness that spanned almost two pages: “I don’t remember the chronology of those I embraced past the first five. […] I thought my momentum led to the next person, but in fact it only led away from the last person. […] My behavior was an attempt to stop time before it swept me up. […] It was a failure of my imagination that made me keep leaving people. All I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, to record, and once recorded, safely forget.”

And here is the same sentiment glossed in Arguments: “My first dozen romances weren’t interesting because I wasn’t learning anything because I was trying so hard not to. I was trying to stop time.”

In the spirit of Pascal’s later editors, here are further entries for want of organizing the Arguments: aging romance; cause and effect; celebrity; discerning; engaging hosts; fame (“Aspiring to fame is aspiring to a life of small talk.”); graciousness; insanity; kisses (“The most fervent kiss of my life was less than five seconds long more than ten years ago with someone else’s husband. It still hasn’t quite worn off.”); lingering obsessions; literariness; melancholy/nostalgia for ones twenties; motherhood; old flames; pathology; rejection; shame (“I didn’t do it for the money, says my friend who appeared in a pornographic film. I did it for the shame.”); sickness; teaching; and value.

The author is present (Sarah Manguso names herself in her text), as is her young son and husband, and against their vitality and facticity, slink her wandering appeals as a writer of perhaps not-much or not-enough renown. (“At faculty meetings I sat next to people whose books had sold two million copies. Success seemed so close, just within reach. On subway benches I sat next to people who were gangrenous, dying, but I never thought I’d catch what they had,” reads one entry in full. “On the page, these might look like the stones of a ruin, strewn by time and weather, but I was here,” reads another.) Scattered across the text’s careful, fitful, iPhone 7 Plus-sized pages are further intimations of sickness and sadness, of the impossibility of producing a single true, beautiful thing, however small. The cute dimensions of the book make it seem like a jaunt, but this is unso.

Manguso’s experience of life, in the little prose sachets that open and blossom page by page, are fragrant with undisclosed potentials. (“I made so many mistakes on purpose just to get them out of the way.” But Sarah, what were the mistakes?) Cosmos bloom and fold back up again, such that the work’s insights pulse line by line, and begin to hum. (“The qualities that all last words share: the silence after.”) Reading the book on the train, I became aware that my brain and body were reverberating along the same line—the inherent volition of one epigram glides you into the next, transports you.

Is this true? you ask yourself, as in, Is this true for me? (“I don’t think the lover ever forgets who started out as the beloved.”) There’s a corollary digital experience: when meme crawling on Vine or Tumblr: you keep looking at That Feeling When posts to see how accurately a meme does indeed capture That Feeling When, and after scrolling for a while, you realize you’re in the bathroom, you’ve been there for an hour, it’s dark, the cold light of the phone is finally all that’s guiding you off the toilet. It takes a while, but you remember you still haven’t wiped.

300 Arguments has a material form corroded—maybe haunted—by an immaterial echo, which is Twitter. The presence of a genre—the tweet—competes with the presence of the book itself. One senses that even in a literary history regularly punctuated by the appearance of a celebrated wit, there’s still Twitter, a literary ecology where people are also writing deliciously brief insights, turning their experiences into curious, even hilarious anecdotes, with the added bonus of appending pictures and links, all in a chancy social context wherein intersections with world events and world figures are also likely to take shape, and in real time! Manguso’s work channels the compulsory attention we might pay to our Twitter feed into a singular narrative voice. But then, Twitter already has a collective voice now, too, a patois. Basically you have to decide if you want to spend $15 to read a finite number of tweets by one author.

Just as Athena was birthed from the forehead of Zeus, so too was Shit My Dad Says birthed from Justin Halpern’s Twitter. (Fairly inactive since 2015. One senses that Justin moved out of the house and is no longer around to record the shit his father says.)

Is that true? I find myself asking, reading 300 Arguments. Is this true? I find myself asking, as I write this review. Obviously the accomplishment of writing 300 pensées (Manguso, inside the book and on the book’s back cover, calls the entries “a long book’s quotable passages”)—ahem, obviously the accomplishment of writing 300 “quotable passages” is a very different thing than writing say, even 300 thoroughly entertaining tweets. The reader experience, the gestalt, it’s also very different. The Arguments has that rarer bird among the specimens: poignancy.

Totally worth the $15.

300 Arguments is published by Minneapolis based Graywolf Press and it’s available for purchase here.

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