Out in paperback this week, The Guardians is Sarah Manguso's elegy for her friend Harris, who eloped from a psychiatric ward and jumped in front of a Metro-North train prior to his thirty-fifth birthday. As her book joins the slim ranks of literature mourning the loss of a platonic friend, we follow the cadences of her grief with four stanzas from Tennyson’s masterwork of that genre, “In Memoriam A.H.H.”
“It doesn’t sound like much,” writes Sarah Manguso in The Guardians, “when I say my friend died. He wasn’t my father or my son or my husband.” But following Harris Wulfson’s death by suicide, his parents tell Manguso that she had been one of the most important people in his life. We are familiar with literature that elegizes, for example, a lost spouse: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, John Bayley’s Elegy for Iris. Less written about is the derangement felt after the passing of a platonic friend. Perhaps the most prominent literary work in this category is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1849 poem “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” which honors his friend Arthur Henry Hallam and is frequently quoted for the lines, “’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” Juxtaposed with Manguso’s spare, choking look at her own grief and friendship, Tennyson’s stanzas neatly encapsulate what is compelling and universal in her book.
The first thing to notice about The Guardians, stylistically, is its fragmentation. Memories of Harris, or speculations on how he felt when he jumped in front of the train, run headlong into declarations of what Manguso doesn’t remember or what she’ll never know. Every few paragraphs she seems to try a different angle: now she quotes psychiatric case reports, and now she examines her own experience with mental illness. From the mishmash shape of the prose, we know that linearity and logic have been given the lie by Harris’s too-early death. Paragraphs are only “coarsest clothes” for a situation that defies such ordering. When my friend Daniel died at age 25, I remember my own difficulty writing about it — now stilted sonnets, now clunky blank verse — until finally I just read from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” at his memorial.
Tennyson’s conclusion to his seventh canto evokes desolation by dismembering its last line into eight monosyllables that break the iambic flow. The ugly manner of Harris’s passing, what Manguso calls “a bad death,” is likewise echoed in the perverse twists with which she often concludes a section of prose. A described series of her own blind dates ends with a mugging. She gets two sentences into her trip to France but interrupts herself with “I am aware of accuracy as an abstract goal...” and then not a word more about Paris. After all, how can a line of thought reach a graceful end if a dear friend’s life could not?
It comes as no surprise that Manguso dwells on her lack of closure and on trying to find explanations. She builds the plausible case that Harris may have jumped not necessarily due to his psychosis, but possibly due to akathisia, the intolerable physical sensation of restlessness that can come on as a side effect of antipsychotic medications. She struggles to understand the degree to which the suicide could have been his conscious choice: “I can identify Harris only with the body, not with the one who threw the body,” she writes. But later: “Why is it easier for me to think Harris killed himself than to think Some unknown invasive pathology entered Harris without my knowledge and, while I wasn’t looking, murdered him?” The answer will remain “behind the veil.”
In between these explorations of senseless loss, a picture steadily coalesces of Manguso’s friendship with Harris and what he meant to her. He hugged her and walked with her the day they watched the Twin Towers fall. His family welcomed her like kin. When he got lost driving in California, he phoned her in New York and she navigated him through. She looks at her husband and realizes he hasn’t known her as long as Harris has known her, even if someday he will. The Guardians is a sort of love story that insists upon the irreplaceability of our true friends.
“It’s tempting to try to claim I’ve learned something very important from the experience of Harris’s death,” she concludes, but she knows full well that what she’s written is less a textbook than a poem.