How does the suicide of a friend affect someone who has come perilously close to suicide herself?
That’s the question Manguso (The Two Kinds of Decay: A Memoir, 2008, etc.) wrestles with in this purgative memoir. The friend was Harris, a brilliant but troubled musician who escaped from a psychiatric ward in 2008 and threw himself in front of an oncoming train. No stranger to depression herself, Manguso attempts to figure out her friend’s motivation. Was it a reaction to an antipsychotic drug known to make patients maddeningly restless? How did he leave the facility so easily? Could she have saved him? What if she had married him? Could he have lived a happy life, or would it always have been one of “unendurable suffering”? As in The Two Kinds of Decay, which recalled her own debilitating struggle with a rare illness, Manguso is adept at breaking her memories into small, vivid pieces. She scrutinizes everything from the language of death to her own close relationship to it: “I say I’m interested in life, but really I want to play a little game with Death. I want to lie down next to him and smell his infected breath.” The author displays brave writing throughout, but she is also self-absorbed. She is so fascinated and fixated on trying to palpate the contours of her own grief that the subject gets lost. Who is Harris? Ultimately, this so-called elegy is more about the author than the subject.
Manguso is an intriguing, talented writer, but this book is missing something vital. It has the weight of the author’s loss without the weight of her experience.