Sarah Manguso may be best known for the sheer precision of her writing. The last four of her seven books—all nonfiction, after two books of poetry and one short story collection—are lean affairs. It’s not because her subjects are slight. The Two Kinds Of Decay recounts her terrifying experience with a Guillain-Barré-adjacent illness beginning in college; The Guardians: An Elegy For A Friend, a suicide. Rather, her prose is, like a red wine reduction, boiled down to its most potent iteration, wherein anything superfluous has been melted off. Put another way: It’s all killer, no filler with Manguso.
Manguso’s tendency for distillation seems only to have intensified over time, with the vignettes she so frequently writes in growing shorter and shorter with each book, as evidenced by her two most recent works. In Ongoingness: The End Of A Diary (2015), she wrote of the 800,000-word daily journal she kept for 25 years, notably refraining from including a single sentence from the diary’s text. For 300 Arguments (2017), she assembled a series of autobiographical aphorisms about art, success, happiness, sex—none of them longer than a half a page, many just a sentence or two. “Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages,” she writes.
In her first novel, Very Cold People, Manguso is as controlled as ever on the sentence level, but her aperture has widened. The book centers around the sensitive, anxious Ruthie and her lonely childhood growing up outside of Boston in the 1980s and ’90s, the action spanning from when she is very small to just after she graduates from high school. “I like to visit with the exhausted girl who was once me,” Ruthie thinks of her younger self. It’s not evident from exactly what distance she’s telling this story, but it’s from an adult’s perspective—one that offers clarity without pressing too heavily on the page.
Once again, Manguso writes in brief, paragraph-length passages, though the form is perhaps less effective here than in her nonfiction. If rendered visually, the novel’s plot might be drawn as a flat line, stretching out horizon-like with occasional juts. As a whole, the book reads more like a memoir than a novel. Here, instead of a clearly defined storyline, are portraits of Ruthie’s parents, classmates, and the town they all live in.
Ruthie’s father is a cheap, angry accountant; his crude, casually cruel wife, a bad mother for the ages. The pastimes of this coarse, uncultured woman include masturbating in open view of her daughter and quashing any glimmer of joy in her. The mother’s characterization is indelible and calcifies as the novel progresses, with each example of pettiness and merry sadism solidifying her as an individual beyond redemption. “Sometimes she made a face at me with puffy lips,” Ruthie says, remembering when she wore braces. “[S]he wanted me to know that I wasn’t fooling anyone, trying to close my mouth around them. She wanted me to know I was ugly.” In Very Cold People, some of the worst things that can happen to children are the actions of parents, coaches, police officers. Even outside of the home, Ruthie encounters few “good” adults. She is so unused to kindness that one day, when a friend’s dad fixes her bike, she begins to cry.
From a young age, the observant girl is finely attuned to her family’s place in town, specifically as it relates to class. The fictional Waitsfield is a New England hamlet of old money and the kinds of historical homes that “bore plaques to mark their age.” As with Ruthie’s mother, Manguso’s rendering of the family’s relative poverty is precisely honed. They are not so poor as to live in the town’s housing projects, but creditors call the house daily, and her parents keep the heat so low in the winter that they double their sweaters. Both Ruthie’s mother and father are obsessed with the empty accumulation of things, visiting the dump religiously in order to reclaim the shabby furniture other people are dumb enough to discard.
For her part, Manguso accumulates an abundance of details, lingering especially on all the material stuff of 1980s girlhood: Lite Brites and Girl Scout badges, sticker collections and friendship pins. What at first looks solely like nostalgia for a pre-internet adolescence becomes more complex over the course of Very Cold People. For a child like Ruthie, whose home life is deficient of nearly anything that resembles nurturing, it’s far safer to long for a doll than a parent’s affection.
Manguso pays similar attention to the Northeastern weather. Here her language is at its most evocative, its loveliest. Winter light is compared to a “watery broth,” and a hocked lump of phlegm falls through the “lacy ice like a cannonball.” Consider, also, the subtle rhymes and rhythm of this paragraph:
If it was cold, the snow accumulated like dust. If it was warm, then the flakes melted together and fell in clumps. Sometimes school was canceled for snow that wound up melting by noon.
Manguso’s contention in 300 Arguments that “Not every narrative is an arc” certainly applies here, but that’s not to say nothing changes. One of the novel’s most significant movements is Ruthie coming to more fully understand—but not necessarily forgive—her mother’s cruelty. This understanding follows the recounting of a series of sexual abuses she and her friends experience. They are separate incidents, perpetrated by different boys and men: a lecherous half-brother, a groping teacher, a father coming into his daughter’s bedroom at night.
It can be frustrating and wearisome, narratively speaking, to encounter this story so frequently. Yet its pervasiveness is exactly the point Manguso is making. So many of these stories are told because there are so many of these stories to tell. The writer underscores their heartbreaking normalcy by depicting them quickly and at a glance. It’s here in the final stretch that the novel’s form—those short, discrete paragraphs—is most effective. In the slow tragedy of an unkind childhood, one bad thing happens and then another and another.
Author photo: Beowulf Sheehan