Daily Book Review: 'Ongoingness: The End of a Diary'

By Sophia Kaufman, Daily Arts Writer
Published April 13, 2015

“Ongoingness: The End of a Diary” reads like Sarah Manguso sat down and wrote it in one go. It flows like 88 pages of an unedited stream of consciousness, but it doesn’t feel like 88 pages. It’s not a linear story; there’s no beginning and there’s no end. It’s not circular; her final words don’t neatly wrap up with a callback introduced in the first five pages. Manguso crafts a narrative with sparse prose that reads like poetry which drops you in the middle and leaves you there — lost in the same “ongoingness” she brilliant articulates between the covers.

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

Sarah Manguso
Graywolf Press

“Ongoingness” is the story of Manguso’s obsession with creating an authentic record of her life, an obsession that culminated in an 800,000-word long diary spanning every day of the past 25 years. She writes about her preoccupation with documenting not the important events she experiences, but those precious moments in between them that fill up the vast majority of our lives.

Manguso, while writing about writing, captures the frustration of the inability to describe what you’re feeling, to be limited by language. Letters and syllables and words themselves create a barrier between emotion and communication. And even if you spend 25 years choosing your words, they’ll never be perfect, and that barrier will still stand. She has a gift for frankly relating truths about the limitations of language. These truths seem like they should be too complicated and bittersweet to be captured in staccato sentences, but they’re not.

Though Manguso’s sentences are short, they call to mind the vivid image of a pen running across a page, frantically trying to keep up with the thoughts that drive it. Her panic is palpable — “Even cognizant of the passing of time that doesn’t stop it from happening.” Words that fall from lips are already obsolete; sentences scribbled on paper ossify before the ink is dry.

The problem of ongoingness, Manguso observes, is that even as we contemplate time, we watch it run away from us. We grasp at and fixate on special moments — the glory days, the turning points, the game-changers, whatever you want to call them — to try to keep ourselves grounded.

Manguso tells us she was fixated on every moment, terrified to lose a single one.

And then, almost exactly halfway through the book, Manguso writes about becoming pregnant and then a mother. During the first 18 months of having a son, she begins to “inhabit time differently.” Her relationship with her diary permanently changes: though she keeps writing in it, she no longer worries about losing memories. Her diary entries become terse, including facts without introspection; “Things were just themselves.”

Becoming a mother releases Manguso from her compulsive recording and teaches her how to be aware of time’s passing without being hopelessly paralyzed by it.

Are any of us more than the sum of our memories — both our own and those that others possess of us? What happens when we are the only ones left to carry the memory of someone else? Can 800,000 words over 25 years capture the experiences and the emotions that happened in them? Which contain the most truth about a person — the things that change about them, or the things that stay the same?

Manguso doesn’t offer answers to these questions, only honest observations about the Herculean effort it takes to recognize the reality about human significance:

“For just a moment, with great effort, I could imagine my will as a force that would not disappear but redistribute when I died, and that all life contained the same force, and that I needn’t worry about my impending death because the great responsibility of my life was to contain the force for a while and then relinquish it. Then the moment would pass, and I’d return to brooding about my lost memories,” she writes.

Hackneyed poetic themes are refreshed in Manguso’s words; she describes running out of time as a privilege and forgotten moments as the price we pay for living a full life. She breaks with the writing gods — you know, the ones you learn to worship in undergraduate English programs — as she oscillates between showing and telling, which would feel like a gimmick if it weren’t for the lack of pretentious self-indulgence. Her writing is poetic, but never preachy. She’s not boasting about possessing any intimacy with life’s secrets.

“Ongoingness: The End of a Diary” isn’t spiritual or moralistic, though it does leave you in a bit of an existential crisis, wandering the halls in search of a friend to tell you that life is in fact worth living despite everything. But even if that friend isn’t very reassuring (Rebecca) you’re able to work through it, because you know now that life is ongoing, and we are all just inhabiting time for the brief amount we’ve been allotted. So make the best of it — or don’t. Manguso doesn’t really care either way. The book isn’t about you. It isn’t even really about her or her son or those 800,000 words and the 25 years they freeze in time.

“Look at me,” she says towards the end, “dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.”

“Ongoingness” is about that dance and how to make it count. And while everyone has to figure that out for him or herself, reading this book could guide the first few steps.