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The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend


The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend Cover




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 Riverdale station on West 254th Street.

The trains engineer told the police that the man was alone and that he jumped. The police officers pulled the body from the track and found no identification. The trains 425 passengers were transferred to another train and delayed about twenty minutes.

*   *   *

If I were a journalist Id have spoken to everyone and written everything down right away. Id have gone to the hospital and met all the people who were on the psychiatric ward at the moment Harris walked out the door, and then this book would be a more accurate rendering of the truth.

If I were to write responsibly, with adequate research to confirm certain facts, Id have to ask people about the last time they saw or spoke with or heard from my friend Harris. Im afraid to ask his parents those questions. Im afraid to talk with his last lover. Im afraid to meet his doctors and the man who drove the train.

For three years Ive studied klezmer orchestration, the physics of rainstorms, maps of Eastern Europe. I thought I could trade my life for this useless, vigorous research. Since I was afraid to know so many answers, I didnt ask any questions, and now its been three years. Now no one could possibly be able to remember the mundanities of July 23, 2008.

I could have waited until the end of my life to try to understand what happened on that day, saved it for last so I could know its whole effect, but instead I waited what seems an arbitrary, meaningless length of time.

I tried so hard not to notice Harriss death, I barely remember it. Time eroded the memory of it even as it gathered the dust of whats happened since. But I need to try to remember it now so I might keep it from haunting me.

*   *   *

We know the lost time begins just after noon because thats what the desk nurse said, and we know it ends at 10:48 because thats when the train pulled into the station. Sometime during that minute, maybe the engineer engaged the air brake. Maybe he blew the whistle. And before or after the engineer did those things, the trains snub nose, or maybe its whole underside, just above the rails, made contact with my friends still living body.

I want to say that ten hours are missing from Harriss life, but that isnt right. They were in his life. They just werent in anyone elses.

Though I wish I could, I cant say Harris lay down on the train track and felt relief. I cant imagine anything but torment, a blinding light, then nothing.

What I carry now—it brightens sometimes, without warning—is not his pain. This pain is mine, and unlike my friend, I dont try to hide it. I let it get all over everything. I yell in my studio. I cry on the subway. I tell everyone I know that my friend threw himself under a train.

*   *   *

Some people believe that only the selfish accept suicide as a possibility, but I dont believe suicide is available to everyone. It was available to me for a moment, and then a door shut between me and it. The door has stayed shut.

Some people think I should be angry at Harris, but Im not angry. I believe in the possibility of unendurable suffering.

A man whose lover died slowly wants this book to be about love.

A man whose brother died quickly wants this book to be about rage. I couldnt save my brother, he says. It never goes away, he says.

*   *   *

Sometimes I wish someone else had died instead—someone who blocks the open subway doors, for example, or someone who leaves piles of peanut shells on a train car. The fantasy comes to me in a flash—I can bring him back to life!

The woman who changed her babys diaper and left the filth on an orange plastic subway seat—Id have traded her for Harris. And Id have traded the man who unwrapped a candy, placed it in his mouth, dropped the wrapper on the platform in front of his feet, chewed, unwrapped another candy, placed it in his mouth, dropped the wrapper on the platform in front of his feet, chewed.

*   *   *

Harris played music, wrote software, wrote music, learned to drive, went to college, went to bed with girls, moved to New York, moved to California, went to graduate school, moved back to New York, went to more graduate school. His three psychotic breaks occupied almost no part of his actual life.

During the first episode, he hired a lawyer, convinced his colleagues were conspiring against him. He called his sister, not knowing where he was, thinking he might have been slipped something. She told him to lie down and rest. He called himself an ambulance, sent it away, drove himself to a gas station, parked the car, got out, slept behind a trash bin. A talking dog appeared and told him to enter a house. The door was unlocked. The people inside called the police, and Harris was arrested and brought to the hospital. After thirty-six hours of telephone calls his mother found him.

I dont know what breed of dog it was. I dont know what color the house was. I dont know how the doorknob felt in my friends hand.

After the first episode, sometimes hed stop speaking before the end of a sentence.


Copyright © 2012 by Sarah Manguso

Product Details

An Elegy for a Friend
Manguso, Sarah
Picador USA
Biography - General
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
8.25 x 5.5 in

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Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend Sale Trade Paper
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Product details 128 pages Picador USA - English 9781250024152 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Memoirs about grief often concern a relative or partner, but Manguso's offers a revealing perspective on simple friendship and on a formative period of early adulthood when choices are made and selfhood solidifies."
"Review" by , "'Nobody understands how I feel,' we often think (mistakenly) in times of loss. But Manguso not only understands, she can articulate it in the precisest and most unexpected of images — an unrelated car accident, a bowl of Italian candies, a swim in the ocean. What results is a memoir that reveals not the just intimacies of the writer's life, but of your own. Most moving is that The Guardians covers a subject so rarely recognized in our society, the grief from the death of a friend."
"Review" by , "Sarah Manguso's The Guardians goes to hell and back....The book majors in bone-on-bone rawness, exposed nerve endings....With The Guardians, I did something I do when I love a book: start covering my mouth when I read; this is very pure and elemental, and I wanted nothing coming between me and the page."
"Review" by , "A bittersweet elegy to a friend who 'eloped from a locked psychiatric ward....[Manguso] explores the extent to which we are our friends guardians and, in outliving them, The Guardians of their memory....Manguso's writing manages, in carefully honed bursts of pointed, poetic observation, to transcend the darkness and turn it into something beautiful. The results are also deeply instructive, not in the manner we've come to fatuously call "self-help" but in the way that good literature expands and illuminates our realm of experience."
"Review" by , "Shortly after returning home from a fellowship year in Rome, poet and memoirist Sarah Manguso received word that her old college friend Harris had fled a psychiatric hospital and jumped in front of a train. In The Guardians: An Elegy, the writer explores, in prose that singes with precision and honesty, the many ambiguities surrounding the tragedy....A long friendship is a crucial orientation point, and Manguso captures with great delicacy the spinning compass of her grief, and its accompanying jumble of anger, disappointments, corrupted memories — and love."
"Review" by , "Packs an emotional wallop into small, patterned movements."
"Review" by , "In The Guardians, Sarah Manguso holds up two kinds of love: the love for someone willfully at ones side (the new husband) and the love for someone willfully gone (the dear friend, a suicide). The limitations and complexities of romantic love played out in the present are here haunted on all sides by the simple expansiveness of platonic love, especially as seen through the lens of mourning. The living cannot compete with the dead. But marriage has its rights before any friendship. The mystery of where Manguso's heart will land propels us through this vivid meditation."
"Review" by , "Sarah Manguso's is a disarming and yet infectiously charming style, one that mixes intimate personal reflection with curiously distanced observations of the world. What this ends up feeling like while reading The Guardians is a tension that's both inviting and simultaneously alienating, a wounded sort of intellect that wants to protect and yet expose itself to the reader. Its a beautifully sad meditation — as exhilarating as it is devastating."
"Review" by , "Manguso is a deliberate and exact stylist....At her best, she has some of Didion's rhythms, her watchfulness and remove, her way of drawing attention to her own fragility....A fiercely personal book."
"Synopsis" by , “An unidentified white man was struck and instantly killed by a Metro-North train last night,” reported the July 24, 2008, edition of the Riverdale Press. This man was named Harris, and The Guardians — written in the years after he escaped from a psychiatric hospital and ended his life — is Sarah Manguso's heartbreaking elegy.

Harris was a man who “played music, wrote software, wrote music, learned to drive, went to college, went to bed with girls.” In The Guardians, Manguso grieves not for family or for a lover, but for a best friend. With startling humor and candor, she paints a portrait of a friendship between a man and a woman — in all its unexpected detail — and shows that love and grief do not always take the shapes we expect them to.

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