Few writers are memoirists by profession, and it’s hard to imagine what the qualifications might be. A compelling and even awful life history helps (Mary Karr), but it’s not really necessary or a guarantee. Exceptional success in some other field (Barack Obama) also creates basic narrative interest, but a talent for politics, for example, doesn’t always translate into a talent for meaningful reflection.
What does seem to distinguish many great memoirists, though, is an almost supernatural intuition with language: the ability to take recollections that have personal resonance and make them echo for readers in written sentences (Joan Didion, Jamaica Kincaid, and Elie Wiesel). In comparison with this gift, experience seems almost beside the point.
By Lavinia Greenlaw
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
224 pp., $23.00
The Two Kinds of Decay
By Sarah Manguso
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
192 pp., $22.00
Sarah Manguso was 20 when she was diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), an obscure neurological disorder. At first, before she endured four years in and out of the hospital and five more of sickness and recovery, she took solace in the rareness of her problem. For a young woman who already was in some respects an artist, the uncommon diagnosis was “proof that my death, the end of my disease, whenever and in whatever form it came, was going to be remarkable.” By the end of the 12 years Manguso recalls in her memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay, this perspective is what has changed the most. Manguso, who became sick and then well over so many years, now believes that “the most important things” happen incrementally.
Manguso describes what happened to her in about 80 discrete sections, each focused on one character or moment and none longer than two or three pages. The paragraphs, or perhaps stanzas, tend to be short and are separated by one-line breaks that function like intakes of breath. Manguso’s writing is similar to Rekdal’s in that, as one reviewer wrote of Rekdal’s memoir, the writing is poetic “not in its dictions but in its elisions.” Like Rekdal, Manguso tends to let the most significant moments in the text fall in the line breaks between thoughts.
At the same time, in what she chooses to describe, Manguso is strenuously precise. Most often, this is the facts of her illness and treatment, and how both physically felt. For example, when Manguso explains that she had a central line implanted into her chest, she writes that she would like the reader to know exactly how the cold blood infusions felt. She would like to invent a metaphor, she writes, but instead it seems most accurate to say that “it felt like liquid, thirty degrees colder than my body, being infused slowly but directly into my heart, for four hours.”
During the four years Manguso suffered from the occurrence and recurrence of CIDP, she had three central lines implanted, spent months at a time bedridden at home and at the hospital, and didn’t know when, if ever, she would be well. This may not be a memoir that was written for others who have been seriously ill. Instead, it falls into the category of extreme testimony, brought back from near-death to the curious living. Manguso spent most of her 20s in a state that, now that it’s ended, she recalls as having been like “nothing” or “less-than-nothing.”
Memoirs of sickness are common; what is remarkable about Manguso’s is that it conveys more subtle developments. The years she describes as nothing were, as she slowly explains, not entirely empty. They were also the moment when an incessantly driven young adult had to pause, and so look around her, and start becoming a writer. In one section, Manguso explains how gamma infusions through the central line required her to stay completely still for 8 to 12 hours. After the first infusion, she remembers sitting in her parents’ car, trying to come up with words for what she had done during that time. “I was going to say I had lain there for ten hours, waiting. But I hadn’t been waiting. I hadn’t been anticipating the next moment.” For the first time in her life, Manguso realizes as she writes, she wasn’t waiting at all. Instead, from her hospital bed, she was paying attention.
Lavinia Greenlaw was lucky enough not to suffer physical crises so early in life. Instead, her adolescence in Essex, England, in the late 1970s was characterized by intense but more benign influences. Her most formative experiences involved pop music, and she writes her memoir by describing her first encounters with it. Like Manguso’s memoir, Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls is written in short sections that often verge on poetry.
Greenlaw takes 56 of these sections to describe how she went from being a small girl who danced on top of her father’s feet to the type of young mother who has an ex-boyfriend and a Public Image record with her on the day she takes her daughter home from the hospital. The sections are loosely chronological, but for the most part they are held together thematically. These include the social and actual circles that young people dance in and use to include and exclude one another; the interplay between language, noise, and music; and the life-changing effects of art.
Greenlaw is the daughter of two eminently practical, caring physicians who let their four children do whatever they liked. She came of age in the midst of the epic transition from punk to post-punk, and had an experimental adolescence that seems the opposite of Manguso’s 20s: Greenlaw was allowed to try anything she liked and came out almost miraculously unharmed. That freedom carries over into the style of her memoir. Greenlaw’s writing has a light, fearlessly provisional quality that often belies her careful observations. In one section, for example, she classifies singles according to 11 unconventional labels. (“Sulk” is Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution,” and Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes.” “Smirk” is Hot Butter’s “Popcorn” and Lieutenant Pigeon’s “Moldy Old Dough.”) All these songs were on the charts in 1972, the year she was 10, Greenlaw concludes, although in her mind some seem just as apt for being 6 or 16.
Greenlaw often casually plays with chronology, but at the same time she remains intensely aware of the contradictory and painful aspects of her adolescence. She renders the year her family moved to Essex and she started secondary school in a meticulous way that makes its strangeness vivid. Greenlaw recalls being at a school dance where she “shrank and veered, and felt in any given situation that I was wrong—standing in the wrong place and making the wrong shapes, the wrong noise.” The song for this is David Bowie’s “Laughing Gnome,” “a brittle piece of nonsense to which people sang along in the same helium way,” and it echoes too how Greenlaw adapted to her new surroundings. “I looked around, took note, and changed. I was a small person in a small place. I developed a small voice and a small laugh ha ha ha, hee hee hee.” Here and elsewhere, Greenlaw uses music not only to situate her young adulthood but also to convey exactly how it felt.
Greenlaw studied the charts, got a transistor radio, and acquired her first tastes from listening to John Peel. She and her friends didn’t know about punk until it was almost over, she admits, but it helped her put a name to the smart, straightforward person she hoped to become. Greenlaw was not an exceptionally advanced teenaged listener, but she was an engaged and impressionable one. The sounds she heard acted upon her as though she were “a cloud struck by lightning,” and these were not only music but also the church bells in the village, the singsong and interruptions of dinner conversations, siblings’ arguments, and the murmur of her parents’ medical language. It seems natural that Greenlaw’s imagination also led her to poetry. The ping of the typewriter was everywhere, she writes, in songs that came through windows and tennis, “the ratcheting revision of the carriage return.”
In almost any memoir by a writer, there is a way that, by the end of the story, the author seems to have found his or her calling. The process of becoming a writer isn’t treated directly in Greenlaw or Manguso’s memoir, but it is constantly present in the example they set with their language and in their shared emphasis on growing powers of attention. In a slightly different form, Poetry editor Christian Wiman recently published a collection of essays, Ambition and Survival, that contain more than a decade of adult life and thought as a poet. Wiman’s writing is definitely prose, but the focus of his 23 extended personal and critical essays is poetry and the life of a poet. The effect seems an almost perfect counterpoint to Greenlaw and Manguso, who write so poetically about the moments before the form became a central concern of their lives. Their young lives have so little in common except, it turns out, the powers they apply to them in retrospect.