Sarah Manguso’s latest book, “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary” is a book that defies close categorization. Ostensibly a book about the great life shift of becoming a mother, it is at once a memoir, a book of aphorisms, and a rumination on mortality, with a bit of poetry thrown in. Manguso spends a lot of time, as the title suggests, talking about the habit of her diary, and an equal amount of time talking about how we say goodbye to the things that have defined us; how we move into the ongoingness.
For all its bucking of categorization, “Ongoingness” is really rather a slip of a book, clocking in at just under 100 pages, including an afterword about why the author chose not to include any excerpts of the diary described in such detail in the primary text. So it is a book that could conceivably be read in an afternoon, but I don’t think it should. As with good poetry, the writing in “Ongoingness” is dense, and as with poetry, I think a slow read is ideal.
Manguso tells small stories full of abstractions, and overall the stories give the impression, not of a conversation or a series of facts which are the ordinary currency of autobiographies, but of a more distilled effort: a glimpse into what it means to be a person. These are, of course, prepared remarks, honed over long periods between writing and publication, but Manguso’s writing aims to present a true account of the occupied moment–of continuing, of mourning, of seeing the time she inhabits, the time we all inhabit, even when that time is a kind of unremarkable boredom–to evaluate and to strip her subject of pretense.
In the first fifty pages of the book, Manguso is fascinated by the processes of beginning and ending–of love affairs, of career choices, of moments of beauty–which she eventually comes to equate with a kind of hope, an unknowing state, with a future yet to present itself. As the book progresses, she admits a new fascination for experiencing the beginnings and ends less as sharp things than marks on a fabric against which her choices are playing out:
“I knew I was getting somewhere when I began losing interest in the beginnings and the end of things.
Short tragic love stories that had once interested me no longer did.
What interested my was the kind of love to which the person dedicates herself for so long, she no longer remembers quite how it began.”
She concerns herself with how to live without letting go of the things she has lived, with how to transcribe while remaining aware enough to have something else to transcribe, as here:
“I tried to record moments, but time isn’t made of moments; it contains moments. There is more to it than moments.”
“Living in a dream of the future is considered a character flaw. Living in the past, bathed in nostalgia, is also considered a character flaw. Living in the present moment is hailed as spiritually admirable, but truly ignoring the lessons of history or failing to plan for tomorrow are considered character flaws.
I still needed to record the present moment before I could enter the next one, but I wanted to know how to inhabit time in a way that wasn’t a character flaw.”
Entering the second half of the book, Manguso writes, “then I became a mother. […] 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.”
She settles into time, which is less loaded with possibility and questions: her course is no longer full of the hope of something about to happen; it is happening.
“Now I am old enough to know what I will never accomplish. I will never be a soldier, a physicist, a thousand other things. It feels like relief.”
Where the first half of the book was haunted by sort of a looming idea of inhabiting time well and fully, the later pages house this passage:
“The best thing about time passing is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know. No more time, no more potential. The privilege of ruling things out. Finishing. Knowing I’m finished. And knowing time will go on without me.
Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.”
If you’re looking for a book that will force you to slow down a little bit and honor the particular way you move through the world, to quiet the noise and reflect, this book might be the right book for you.
Marina reads and writes about poetry and nonfiction. When not staffing the reference desk, she is making terrible jokes, cooking, gardening, or riding her bicycle. If you have a suggestion for something that should be included in a future blog post, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.