the question at the heart of Sarah Mangusoís "Ongoingness:
The End of a Diary" (Graywolf: 98 pages, $20): How
does a writer record his or her experiences and live
them at the same time?
in the stillness of her Silver Lake, Los Angeles, living
room, wearing a black dress identical to "too many
other dresses" in her closet, Manguso discusses
that issue with an air of self-containment, speaking
quietly, sparely, stopping on occasion to choose a word.
Itís a style that mirrors her writing ó not just
"Ongoingness" but also her previous memoirs
"The Guardians" (2012) and "The Two Kinds
of Decay" (2008) as well as her 2007 short-story
collection "Hard to Admit and Harder to
yet "Ongoingness" speaks as well to a
conflicting sensibility, what the author calls "a
particular anxiety," for it grows out of a diary
she has kept throughout her life.
started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago," the
book begins. "Itís eight hundred thousand words
live, of course, in a diaristic era. This April, Heidi
Julavits will publish "The Folded Clock,"
which uses the diary as a source of revelation and
reflection; meanwhile, Karl Ove Knausgaard has become a
lightning rod for his 3,600-page autobiographical
"My Struggle" (the fourth volume is due out in
the U.S. in early May).
intent, however, is different ó not to re-create her
diary but to meditate on it, as both artifact and
pathology. There is nothing in "Ongoingness"
about the decision to come to Los Angeles, first in 2010
and then again, after moving back to New York, in 2013.
There are no proper nouns, no names, few reference
points other than the obsessive weight of the diary
she acknowledges in the early pages, "I wrote so I
could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in
itself wasnít enough. The diary was my defense against
waking up at the end of my life and realizing Iíd
missed it." At stake is not forgetting but how to
convey the depth of everything. The diary, then, is the
expression of such an impulse: preservation as a kind of
makes "Ongoingness" so fascinating is that
even as it recognizes this, it also moves beyond it,
seeking an accommodation with memory and time. The
turning point is Mangusoís experience of motherhood.
(She and her husband, who works in the video game
industry, have a 3-year-old son.)
she had begun to write about the diary as early as 2010,
her focus shifted after the birth of her child.
"This," she admits with a laugh, "is
essentially the motherhood book I swore never to write
or read or talk about or even allow into the
conversation about serious work, because before you have
a baby, babies are this trivial thing that other people
waste their lives doing."
not to say "Ongoingness" is about parenthood,
at least not in any traditional sense. Instead, it zeros
in on being a mother, its physical and existential
weight. "In my experience," Manguso writes,
"nursing is waiting. The mother becomes the
background against which the baby lives, becomes
time." And: "My body, my life, became the
landscape of my sonís life. I am no longer merely a
thing living in the world; I am a world."
feeling of expansion did much to alleviate the anxiety
that had driven the diary, as did the protean memories
that emerged from her early interactions with her son.
of the details that made me understand that most of my
beliefs about how I inhabited time were fairly
limited," Manguso reflects, "was that in the
experience of hanging out with this preverbal human, I
suddenly started having preverbal memories of my own. I
had always been highly critical of people who claimed to
have these extremely early memories, because memory
science dictates thereís no way you can hold something
like that untainted. But as I watched this preverbal kid
stand in his crib and look around, I had a perfect sense
memory of an orange panel, with a little crank and a
little bell and a little mirror, and the more time I
spent with him, the more those memories started coming
back to me. That in itself didnít assuage all my
anxiety about forgetting, but it definitely contributed
to my letting go."
one level, this explains the title, which is about
ongoingness as a state of being. "We move through
time," Manguso says, "and there are individual
events, but there is a continuity of experience,
the same, ongoingness cannot protect us from mortality,
from desolation, loss. The topic infuses her writing in
"The Guardians," built around the suicide of a
college friend ó or "my obsessive unwillingness
to stop grieving for my friend when everybody else I
know has finished, including his family" ó and
"The Two Kinds of Decay," which tracks the
authorís experience, in her 20s, with an autoimmune
I care about," she says, "is if I can move on.
Of course, itís a construct, but itís soothing, or,
to use a very overused metaphor, it feels as if Iíve
backed up a file and I donít need to keep it
is, not unlike Mangusoís other work, willfully
open-ended, reflective, subjective, an essay rather than
a mere recounting of events. Thatís one reason it is
so slender, fewer than 100 pages of deftly wrought
fragments that together explore the problem not just of
memory but also identity.
does seem like a great contradiction," Manguso
admits, referring to the diary, which is ongoing to this
day. "ĎOngoingnessí is not the diary; itís a
work about the diary. As such, my worry about failing to
record so many things in the diary doesnít really
carry over. This essay is me writing as myself. And so
the anxiety Iím writing about didnít really infect
the composition here."