Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
By Sarah Manguso
Graywolf Press, 2015
95 pages, $14.00
Reviewed by Ashley Miller
Many turns of the clock hand ago, time- and water-obsessed Virginia Woolf observed that in order for an individual to value life more, someone had to die. Sarah Manguso’s seventh book, Ongoingness, addresses the river of time, the author’s anxiety of existence, and examines how this thought, that death gives sharper value to life, is not necessarily true.
Manguso’s deceptively slim essay centers on reflections surrounding the author’s 20-year habit of compulsive diary-keeping. Manguso developed the habit as an attempt to assuage her paranoia that important moments would escape her and slip into the abyss of time. The Diary—it is such a presence that it demands a proper name—was created as a “defense against waking up at the end of…life and realizing [she’d] missed it.”
Manguso’s compulsion expands into an eight hundred thousand word compendium of the mundane. The Diary morphs as Manguso grows and ages, but is largely the same until Manguso becomes pregnant and ultimately enters motherhood. Then, suddenly and strangely, her relationship to time and memory seems to change. The Diary seems to no longer be the manic centerpiece of Manguso’s existence.
In 88 beautifully sparse pages Manguso dissects questions surrounding both the impetus of her diary-keeping- “it’s a vice” she explains, “I write the diary instead of taking exercise… or volunteering my time to the unlucky.” -and the catalyst for its change, the arrival of her son.
This change, and questions surrounding it, become the crux of Ongoingness. Why exactly did The Diary change and what does that mean? Did Manguso’s nihilistic panic subside, or did she just get distracted? Does it even matter that The Diary changed? How do we, as finite beings, cope with the rushing ocean of time as it sifts through each of us and drains into nothing?
Ongoingness is so deliciously layered that it is impossible to encapsulate all that Manguso combs out in its pages without ruining the magic that is reading the book. She tugs apart anxieties, expectations, and common understandings surrounding memory, aging, parenthood, and mortality. The reality that Manguso manages her Herculean task in such a slim, unassuming book is remarkable, and is also the flaw of the essay.
At times the expansive problem of The Diary and the deep, complicated themes that surround Manguso’s relationship with time feel crammed in the half-pages of text. There were moments when I wanted ideas to have more space to ripen, fall open on their own, but Manguso pulls open their edges. Other moments I wanted to wade into answers; Manguso shoves the reader in.
However, this is an issue Manguso touches on early in the reflection. In the section addressing her questionable practice of editing diary entries, she discusses creating language as “a pure delivery system… like pure feeling, not of what seems like a vehicle for feeling.” Telling is ultimately, it seems, the purpose of the essay. Rather than allowing for languid nostalgia in her visit with The Diary, Manguso wants to freeze-frame answers she needs, trim them from the rest and deliver them to readers directly. It seems that the compulsion of Ongoingness is very much married to the compulsion of The Diary. Maybe Manguso is not so changed after all.
The telling nature of the essay is why I wish I had read the examination of The Diary and then walked away before reading Manguso’s afterword. I should have continued to toy with the threads Manguso unraveled, hunted down an old diary to read, nibbled a madeleine, gave my mom a call. And then, once properly steeped, I should have gone back to read the afterword. Because it is worth reading, but it too-neatly wraps up a few last elements of the essay that I’d rather have toyed with a bit more on my own.
Manguso’s dissection of The Diary juxtaposes life and death, eternity and finality in a lot of the same ways Woolf does in her observation that sometimes in order to appreciate what you’ve got, you have to realize it can be taken away. Time, life, the stream of ongoing ongoingness that we are plunked into at the moment of our birth is not made sweeter, sharper, or more meaningful because others leave the stream, but rather the stream slows and thickens as more enter the waters. Manguso successfully sweetens the futility of being caught in the ever-flowing stream of time, the “one way journey,” with the joy of continuing to go on and on and on.