Making sense of the surrounding chaos: Sarah Manguso on The Two Kinds of Decay
Not only was Sarah Manguso’s body completely weakened by a rare neurological disease (where the antibodies in her own blood would poison her), but she dealt with other levels of illness, such as the effect of strong drugs she had to take, and deep depression. But everything I tried to write about The Two Kinds of Decay felt like a throwaway statement compared to what it’s like actually reading the book.
It should be difficult, or at least distancing and scientific, to read about someone having a catheter inserted in their chest. In this book, it is deeply poetic. Sarah’s darkest moments (like screaming until she is hoarse, or being awake during painful, semi-botched surgery) are stark but approachable. She denies any kind of heroics, or pity, but also allows you to ache for her – to imagine how frustrating, how strange, and how sad life is when physical suffering overrides it. She describes in small snapshots some of the people who have come in and out of her life – neurologists, nurses, a college boyfriend – and then reveals the different sides of people around illness. She doesn’t let the incompetent get away with it. She makes the caring, tireless people who cared for her shine in a quiet, grateful way.
Your memoir is about a life shadowed by a rare disease, and you tell the story in a series of memories, or vignettes. Why use this diary-style approach?
It wasn’t an artistic choice as much as it was a practical choice. Before The Two Kinds of Decay, I wrote two poetry collections and a story collection. I was accustomed to writing short pieces, and in fact, the book began as a nonchronological collection of what eventually became the chapters as they exist now. I just began with a form that I was familiar with.
You are already known for your poetry and fiction, which has been published around the world (including Australian journal The Lifted Brow). Is writing a cathartic activity for you, or has it been, when you were ill? Or like some writers, do you feel compelled to write, to tell stories?
I don’t feel compelled to tell stories or to invent. I do, however, feel compelled to try to make sense of the surrounding chaos.
When I was young I couldn’t touch a deflated balloon or listen to people eat without entering an overstimulated panic. (The complete list of things I couldn’t look at or listen to or touch is considerable.) Back then, kids were allowed to be weird, so from a young age I spent most of my time alone, thinking, playing, calming down. I still do those things.
The Two Kinds of Decay is so literary, and was so absorbing to me. At times it felt like a series of strange, imagined moments. Then I remembered it was real. How does it feel to you now, holding the book in your hands, signing copies, having people read it?
I feel as if I transferred the data to an external storage facility and don’t need to remember as much. I wonder if people felt relieved when their oral cultures became literate cultures, when their history and literature no longer had to depend on human recall.
There’s a real calmness to the book overall, you acknowledge how many people go through different kinds of ‘so much’ every day. Small moments of quiet are described just as memorably as the ‘events’ and ‘drama’ of your life. How important was it to you, to maintain this balance?
My purpose was to write as clearly as possible, and often that purpose demanded restraint. I like Chekhov’s line ‘If you want to move your reader, write more coldly.’
Who are some of your favourite writers, and why?
My favorite writers don’t waste time. They write in order to solve problems. I like animals for the same reason – they are guileless, they don’t pretend to like things, they do what they must do.
My favorite literary form is the essay, the good-faith attempt to make sense of something. But of course there are plenty of fake essays.
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now?
A story collection.
Thanks so much Sarah.