Graywolf Press ($14)
by Zoey Cole
If writers as a group are accused of being blissfully unaware of their egos, then Sarah Manguso is a virtuously self-aware exception. 300 Arguments, her latest foray into nonfiction, is part memoir, part advice, part laughter, and all unflinching honesty.
At first, these ninety pages of short aphorisms, ranging from five to eighty-five words, appear disjointed and confusing. There is no immediately obvious thread except for Manguso’s straightforward sass and personal reminiscences and opinions; there is a short scene about “the gay cadets” and another about cat skeletons. Remembering the second statement in the book—“You might as well start by confessing your greatest shame. Anything else would just be exposition”—will help the reader to spot the connecting pieces that begin to surface as Manguso offers glimpses into marriage, sex, motherhood, writing, and failure.
Manguso reveals personal details almost as if she is putting together clues from a murder, or in this case, an affair. Manguso hints at her fear about love early in the book: “I used to avoid people when I was afraid I loved them too much. Ten years, in one case. Then, after I had been married long enough that I was married even in my dreams, I became able to go to those people, to feel that desire, and to know that it would stay a feeling.” Nine pages later, she gives us “[the] affair is over, but at least things have gone somewhere, if only into oblivion. And maybe oblivion is what I wanted all along.” Hints about her eventual marriage, her son, and her autoimmune disease serve to illustrate the personality and depth behind her voice, never sensationalizing those experiences at the expense of her prose.
The latter half of the book focuses more obviously on the frustrations, joys, and realities of the writing life. Manguso has been a published writer for at least fifteen years now (her first poetry collection, The Captain Lands in Paradise, was published by Alice James Books in 2002), and the voice threading itself through 300 Arguments is at once world-weary and hopeful when concerned with writing. In one moment, she explains “People like to tell my very successful friend that they, too, intend to write some books. He always answers, with big eyes and a ghoulish smile, How hard could it be?” Four topically unrelated statements later, she returns to this thought: “Another friend always gives the same consolation to those afraid of publishing some potentially embarrassing passage. Don’t worry, he whispers beatifically. No one will read it.” Self-deprecating moments like these endear Manguso to the reader, and she is honest even about Arguments itself: “Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages.”
Short books like 300 Arguments can lend themselves too much to social media bites and inspirational quotations. While Manguso is easily quotable, that is not the purpose of this collection; this is life experience and real wisdom distilled onto a few short pages.