The Broken Elegy
by Sarah Manguso
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$20.00 List Price
Sarah Manguso’s prose elegy for a friend who died when he jumped onto the tracks as a Metro-North train pulled into the 254th Street station in Riverdale is odd, fragmentary, obstinately unbalanced. On July 23, 2008, musician and software engineer Harris Wulfson checked himself out of a psychiatric ward and died roughly ten hours later, his actions and whereabouts in the intervening hours never accounted for. Manguso admits up front that she has little access to the events leading up to the death. She had been in Rome, on a writing fellowship, for the last year of Wulfson’s life, and she lacks either the wherewithal or the desire to investigate. The book is neither journalism nor personal memoir. She notes facts and traits she associates with Wulfson not in order to bring him to life for the reader, as a more conventional tribute might have done, but with a flatness of affect that speaks to the inadequacy of words, which can never bring back those we have lost. In the case of some other book, it might be a criticism to observe that the author’s private language has only been partially translated into a meaningful idiom, but here it represents the book’s most distinctive stylistic achievement: Manguso’s embrace of rhetorical failure itself constitutes an unusual and strangely affecting lament.
By declining to answer the common emotional charge of elegy, to move and be moved, Manguso has written a fitting companion piece to her 2008 memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay, which tells the story, in short titled chapters of elliptical prose, of the author’s