Memoir Review: Lanie Tankard Reviews Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso

by Matilda Butler on May 5, 2015

catnav-book-raves-active-3Post #110 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Matilda Butler

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

by Sarah Manguso

[Publication Details:
Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/ongoingness
Cover Design by Kyle G. Hunter, Book Design by Ann Sudmeier
]

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

“A diary means yes indeed.”
—Gertrude Stein
(“A Diary” in Alphabets and Birthdays)

Writer and poet Sarah Manguso maintained a gargantuan daily journal for twenty-five years, recording just about every nanosecond of her existence. Then she stopped. Why?

In her third memoir, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Manguso offers a distinctive explanation via an essay in condensed diary form. As this inveterate chronicler calls a halt to that practice, she minimally limns the route of her thoughts as they approach “Nevermore!”

Her svelte maroon volume comprises a mere 104 pages, stacking up to a thickness of only 3/8 of an inch with dimensions of 5×7. The reader has the tactile sensation of holding a slim journal. A splashy gold inkblot partially obscures the label “Diary” on the cover while inside, pithy entries represent daily journal accounts, often with only half the page filled.

Yet what emerges through this circumspect narrative are some heady thoughts as Manguso proffers a judicious synopsis of her protracted diary—the one that archives the whole time she’s been alive. She refuses to quote from that official record in this new memoir though, perhaps as a step to wean herself away from writing in the extensive chronicle any longer. Instead she discourses in Ongoingness about only the merest highlights of her life, eschewing the details.

This method allows her to examine broader concepts such as time, memory, documentation, recollection, diary keeping, forgetting, remembering, content analysis by decades, verb choice, and all that is not written down. She carves out space to wonder whether photographs can accurately document a life, if a memory is reduced each time it’s recalled, and what newborns remember.

Thus does she unite both defining aspects of the word memoir: (1) a biography or historical account based on personal knowledge, as well as (2) an essay on a scholarly subject. By framing this book as a metadiary, Manguso has turned the memoir genre on its head. In the past, she’s called memoir “impossible by definition,” saying she actually prefers the word autobiography. On the back cover, Ongoingness is clearly tagged “Memoir.”

Manguso recognizes her need to create a dossier encompassing the recorded history of her presence on earth is obsessive, but until she gives birth to a son she is unable to give up the compulsion. Her intense depiction of the nonstop-sleepless-milk-production days while caring for an infant is reminiscent of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, a nonfiction feminist scrutiny of motherhood.

Manguso sleepwalks out of this numb state into an elegant realization about the power of forgetting, realizing that all her graphic databanking cannot halt the passage of time.

In an Afterword to the memoir, she articulates why she decided to omit any excerpts from her much longer diary and wrote a diary essay instead.

Manguso has published two books of poetry Siste Viator and The Captain Lands in Paradise, a short-story collection published with two other authors, One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box: Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, How the Water Feels to the Fishes, and Minor Robberies as well as two other memoirs—the first Two Kinds of Decay about her nine-year struggle with an autoimmune disease as well as an exploration of illness and the language that surrounds it, and the second The Guardians an elegy for a friend.

By considering the very nature of how humans go on—continuing, enduring despite—Sarah Manguso confirms in Ongoingness that we remain open-ended uncompleted works-in-progress our whole lives, whether the moments are documented or not.


Lanie TankardLanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

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