“The Thursday edition of the Riverdale Press carried a story that began ‘an unidentified white man was struck and instantly killed by a Metro-North train last night as it pulled into the station on West 254th Street.’” So begins Sarah Manguso’s second memoir (after The Two Kinds Of Decay), a long meditative, lyrical essay on the 2008 suicide of Harris Wulfson, one of her closest friends. Manguso grappled with intense, lingering grief after his death, and she couldn’t bring herself to write about him for three years, but The Guardians depicts an arduous mourning period and the painful search for answers where seemingly none can be found.
The book unfolds through a series of short passages, not quite the formal prose poems of Eula Biss’ debut, The Balloonists, but using a similar fractured chronology of events interspersed with detailed outside research. After providing the bare-bones information on Harris’ suicide, Manguso fills in the backstory with many quiet, longing anecdotes, expressing concisely just how deep their connection ran. In spite of the attraction between them, and some disbelief from friends and family, Manguso and Harris never dated; that would have brought the possibility of a breakup. Instead, they were the closest of friends, operating on a level of uncanny understanding. Manguso recounts trips to the beach, visiting families, and inklings of professional success in such brief segments that the memories’ strength makes them feel like passing dreams.
At the time of Harris’ death, Manguso had just returned from a year in Rome, having lost contact with many friends at home while having a miserable time abroad. She hadn’t yet reconnected with Harris, and her guilty thoughts about whether she could have prevented his suicide form the most fascinating passages. As Joan Didion recently explored in Blue Nights, the examination of culpability or responsibility after the death of a loved one is incredibly difficult to parse out, but The Guardians occupies a slightly different space on the memoir spectrum, as Manguso ponders how in spite of similar mental afflictions, she survived and Harris did not.
Clocking in at barely over 100 pages, The Guardians is best read in one extended sitting. There aren’t any logical stopping points, and putting the book down robs the essay of its rhythm. It bounces easily from Manguso’s married life with her husband back to early memories of living in a New York loft, details of Harris’ history of mental instability, and Manguso’s struggles with therapy and the side effects of psychotropic medication. The Guardians is slim, but its effect isn’t slight. It packs an emotional wallop into small, patterned movements.