The Dead

Remembrance of Friends Past: Sarah Manguso’s Book Bag

Sarah Manguso’s latest elegy for a friend is one in a long line of autobiographical writing putatively devoted to other subjects. Here are her five favorite examples of such works.

03.12.13 8:45 AM ET

Sarah Manguso’s latest book might be subtitled An Elegy for a Friend, but it is also a memoir about her grief. The Guardians tells the story of Harris, Manguso’s best friend who escaped from a psychiatric hospital and jumped under a train. Manguso’s portrait is one in a long line of autobiographical works that lurk behind the covers of books putatively devoted to other subjects.

Halls of Fame
By John D’Agata

This is what reported travel stories look like when the reporter notices only the things he isn’t supposed to notice. D’Agata has since published several books expounding upon the complex and variable uses of information; in this, his first, stray pieces of information shine an unexpected light on the narrating self.

Monster in a Box
By Spalding Gray

Monster is a dramatic monologue, in Gray’s own words “a monologue about a man who can’t write a book about a man who can’t take a vacation.” Plagued by his unfinished 1,800-page novel, the eponymous Monster, Gray seeks to escape it through constant travel. Yet wherever he goes—as it is said—there he is, contained in a Protestant halo of exquisite self-awareness.

My Brother
By Jamaica Kincaid

In examining the circumstances of her brother’s death of AIDS, Kincaid is forced also to reconsider her loathing for her mother, her avoidance of Antigua (her birthplace), and her various old guilts. No matter how early or how completely she believed she’d escaped the members of her birth family, they shape her fate—and she shapes theirs.

Reader’s Block
By David Markson

This novel consists almost entirely of fragments of literary anecdotes and historical curiosities, many about the tragic lives and deaths—venereal disease, bigotry, infidelity, suicides—of artists and writers. Hiding among the collected factoids are lines from Reader, an aging, disappointed author. Despite his insistence that the book is a failure, a warily honest narrator emerges.

By Maggie Nelson

“Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color,” reads the first of these 240 propositions about the color blue. Nelson interrogates love, empathy, mortality, and human suffering, and also brilliantly describes her strange condition, which emerges somehow as both impossible and inevitable. The book’s final proposition is the barest declaration of the mortal self I have ever read.