In Sarah Manguso’s new novel, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Manguso wrestles with the behemoth of her 25-year old diary, attempts to put into words the experiences of youth, of aging, of loss, of memory, of marriage, and of new life. And she is successful.
In discussing a short novel like Ongoingness (which is anything but short in its breadth), I scarcely know where to begin, so maybe some background is in order.
Whereas Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay focused on her experience with an autoimmune disease, Ongoingness centers on Manguso’s new role as wife and mother, as an aging person, on ideas of memory and legacy. Much like in The Two Kinds of Decay, she has moments where the reader is left breathless, crafting the kinds of sentences that makes one envious. Ongoingness is about the diary form, about how it can change in time and over time, how we as human beings change in time and over time, and how time itself is something that is constantly moving forward. How our immediate concerns shift, change, and our dreams, past, and future become the present. Try to digest that idea.
Ever-present is Manguso’s flair for humor, even in the most unlikely of situations. After her husband has been administered a benzodiazepine prior to surgery:
“It causes anterograde amnesia, so when my husband whispered I love you directly into my ear, I whispered back, You aren’t going to remember this.” (44)
In describing a kind of pregnancy amnesia:
“Then another friend told me his apartment has been burgled. How lucky that the dog wasn’t hurt! I wrote back. He’d put the dog down months before. I hadn’t remembered that, either” (Pg. 48).
But, like I mentioned, there are lines where I couldn’t help but think “wow…”:
“In my experience, nursing is waiting. The mother becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time” [….] “My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world” (Pg. 53).
“The least contaminated memory might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia—in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it. With each recollection, the memory of it further degrades. The memory and maybe the fact of every kiss start disappearing the moment the two mouths part” (29).
“Remember the lessons of the past. Imagine the possibilities of the future. And attend to the present, the only part of time that doesn’t require the use of memory” (27).
“Let me put it another way: when I am with my son I feel the bracing speed of the one-way journey that guides human experience” (77).
Sarah Manguso is a writer I genuinely enjoy. I may not be a mother (and obviously cannot be due to the physical deficiencies of my male form), but I can relate to being an aging human being in the forward momentum of time, forgetting, remembering, and forgetting, and trying all the while to avoid the forgetting so that I can remember. Ongoingness is a short read, but the meditation is long-term and universal.