Sarah Manguso's The Two Kinds of Decay
The Stop Smiling Review
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
The Two Kinds of Decay
By Sarah Manguso
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Reviewed by Nate Martin
A writer does not need to have experienced great suffering at an early age in order to write a good memoir while still young, but it doesn’t hurt. In 1995, then-21-year-old Harvard undergrad Sarah Manguso contracted a rare, devastating disease — her immune system began to produce antibodies that attacked her nervous system, which induced paralysis that began at her extremities and encroached toward her vital organs. The Two Kinds of Decay documents the nine years of illness that followed the disease’s inception. It is an impressive display of inquisitive memory, a treatise on being young and sick and a testament to the importance of truly paying attention.
Decay focuses on two lives: the one Manguso actually lived and the one she assumed she would live before she contracted the disease. Slavoj Zizek says the opposite of “existence” is, in fact, not nonexistence, but insistence — a thing we know could have existed, but does not, nags at us, insists we not forget its absence. The appearance of Manguso’s disease was the point of departure at which her real life broke from the path she assumed it would take and spiraled out into spacetime. While she describes her painful and degrading hospital stays, the crushing effect of the disease on her psyche, and its repeated impediments to her development into a successful young woman, she returns continually to the other, absent life — the one she lives through her friends and imagination, in which she has great college sex, graduates on time and has the physical capacity to feel powerful and fast.
Manguso, a Rome Prize-winning poet, structured Decay into short chapters, most two or three pages long. Her straight-faced prose swells within each short space, creating a series of pressurized, succinctly sealed units. Most end with observations or descriptions that range from humorous to heartbreaking to horrifying:
“[The doctor] tried again and again to jam the tube into my vein. Every now and then he had to stop and apply pressure, as I was bleeding. At one point I thought I felt a jet of blood spurt into my chest cavity, and that’s when I lost my composure. Months later, after his hair had gone from steel gray to white, my father told me it had looked like a horror movie.”
At points in the book, Manguso radiates with the knowledge of how fortunate she is to have been covered by private health insurance throughout her illness. At one, a hospital accidentally sends the bill for one of her dozens of infusions to her parents’ house, and she sees the single treatment cost $35,000. At another, Manguso meets a young Irish woman online who has the same disease, and who receives crucial blood plasma transfusions only once a month because that is the best her country’s health care system can offer. Finally, years after her disease’s most recent remission, Manguso writes, “I’ve always had health insurance — if I relapsed without insurance, my parents would be homeless within a year.”
At 186 pages heavy with white-space, The Two Kinds of Decay is readable in two or three days. It’s Manguso’s second prose publication, after last year’s Hard to Admit, Harder to Escape. Both books’ sharp, terse tones are adaptations of the style Manguso honed as a poet. She has already emerged as an “exciting literary talent." Decay simply further affirms she deserves such a title.