Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008
Sarah Manguso’s fourth book, The Two Kinds of Decay, recounts a harrowing nine-year bout with a rare and complicated blood disease. Her twenties are framed around hospital stays, surgeries, and blood transfusions, with brief moments of respite—concern with having sex before graduating from college, eating the best hamburger ever made—tempered by the angst of her boding illness.
Manguso’s background as a poet seeps into her writing; the format of the book is as much a series of vignettes and ruminations as it is a direct narrative. It veers through epigrammatic writing, self-effacing philosophy, and haiku-prose. In all cases, Manguso’s writing is truly unique; she can impact with one sentence what most authors can only hope for in a paragraph. Here are some excerpts:
Of course I’d rather have the common disease that people know how to treat, but there were times that I cherished my rare disease for its irrefutable proof of my specialness.
For its proof that my death, the end of the disease, whenever and in whatever form it came, was going to be remarkable.
Was the CIDP a physical manifestation of a spiritual illness?
Did the medication trigger the depression, or did the depression trigger the CIDP?
What about those yogis who can lie down on a bed of nails, then arise, streaming blood, then stop the flow of blood from each wound individually with the power of their minds? Isn’t
frailty often a choice?
And if frailty is a choice, then isn’t an autoimmune disease a semi-intentional suicide?
What came first, the suicidal depression or the suicidal autoimmune disease?
Did they happen independently of each other, or not?
Sometimes I think that in the real universe, I am born already in possession of my CIDP, my depression, my whole life and death, and the text of this book. That I’m incapable of making
the events of my life happen—either because they’ve already happened, or because they’re always happening, at every possible point in spacetime.
And then sometimes I think I’ve made everything happen, starting with making myself be born.
Three times a week for six weeks, I sterilized the top of one of the vials with an alcohol swab, drew 300 cc of the serum into one of the syringes, flicked the syringe to get the bubbles out, wiped down a spot on one of my thighs with another alcohol swab, grabbed the flesh on both sides of the spot and pinched it with my left hand, then with my right hand put the needle in as far as it could go. Then I pushed the plunger all the way down, waited a moment, withdrew the needle slowly, and discarded it in my big red SHARPS container. The whole thing took less than a minute. It wasn’t nearly dramatic enough that I could enjoy it.
On top of that, the side effects from the drug were the third worst of all the drugs I’d been given.
When I turned twenty-two I thought my life, which had already been relatively easy, would get even easier, since at twenty-one, I’d already done the hardest thing I’d ever have to do.
The only hard thing I’d ever done had not left me compassionate.
I remember the first friend I made who met me after the diagnosis, but I don’t remember when I stopped thinking, when I met new people, This person, whose hand I am shaking at this moment, is another person who never knew me before the diagnosis.
The only hard thing I’d done in my life was recovering from a disease. My self-image had been highly susceptible to that event. It constituted most of my identity.
When a friend or a stranger mentioned anything about a difficult or noteworthy event, I chose one of countless hospital vignettes from recent memory and told the little story in a way that prevented further conversation about it or any other subject.
Though during the bad relapses I knew I was a better person temporarily, in general the disease made me furious, jealous, resentful, impatient, temperamental, spiteful. My sense of entitlement grew enormous. I knew the steroids had triggered what is now called a mood disorder, and I didn’t care.
The hardest thing I’d ever done, the hardest thing I’d ever have to do, had made me a worse person! That wasn’t how it was supposed to work. Tribulation is supposed to make strong people, people who radiate mercy, leaders of their kind.
I’d have to do harder things before my self-regard lost the mean air that had inflated it.
From THE TWO KINDS OF DECAY by Sarah Manguso, published this month by
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright (c) 2008 by Sarah Manguso. All