Book Review : "Ongoingness - The End Of A Diary," by Sarah Manguso

Part essay, part memoir, part commentary on the (futile) act of capturing Time, "Ongoingness: The End of a Diary," by Sarah Manguso is a brilliant work of reflective literature that is as fresh in its piercing insight as it is timeless in its simplicity. A musing on over eight hundred thousand words of intricately recorded events that spanned a good twenty five years of her life, Ongoingness is not a strict autobiographical sketch, but is instead a mature reflection on the very act of recording these events, when observed with the benefit of having lived through the events.

The work is an essay in a loose sense -- the pages are sprinkled with thoughts about thoughts that were remembered and recorded in her diaries, which are connected by a chain of realizations based on those events. Hardly any material (according to the author) is a verbatim reproduction from her diaries, but every sentence, every exclamation, every half-left thought resonates completely within the fullness, of the act of experiencing versus recording Time.

She starts with the simple acknowledgement of the monumental task, painstakingly undertaken for the past twenty five years, culminating in about eight hundred thousand words of recorded individual history. But, she further observes, therein lies the fundamental conundrum involved in the act of any record keeping -- what constitutes the true 'life'? Is it the events that were chosen to be recorded, or the experiences that no record could capture accurately? In our haste to record beginnings and endings as the bookends of our existential identity, do we miss out on the middles where the seeds from the beginnings germinate and mature into the fruits that we finally observe? Can we reduce our lives to a series of events that happened to change their direction in an incremental fashion day after day? And what about those things that remained by our side, immutable through our journey over the years? If no record survives of such things, did they ever exist?

She recounts in a frank manner, her obsession to capture her life through the minutiae of her daily routine - even imagining a life without her diary becomes a sort of death to her. From the dry routine of a child, to the compulsive need to channel her overflowing experiences as a teenager and youth, to the quiet, measured filtering of events as a young woman -- the experience itself undergoes a metamorphosis as Time flows forward for her. In her quest to find her 'exquisite moment', she flits from one relationship to another, in her own words - "My behavior was an attempt to stop time before it swept me up."

Her quest opens up new dimensions after her marriage and with the birth of her child. She realizes, with a kind of exhausted, but glowing fascination -- that she has transformed from a mere individual in the sea of humanity to, in the eyes of her child, an entire world! It is a world full of nourishment, and possibilities, but it is also a world where she has lost the concept of time, and where all thoughts, events, and records invariably revolve around the baby.

Age and motherhood also bring a maturity that allows her to look back upon this obsession with recording events as a folly. She understands that this human fixation on moments may simply be the result of our inability to accept life as an ongoing activity. But perhaps her most poignant reflection sheds light on her individual, and by extension, our communal, relationship with our mortality. Thinking about her time on this planet, and guided by her previous reflections on the perpetual state of existence, she says:

        "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."

The memoir is a collection of such dazzling insights, set up with an almost superhuman economy of expression! Sarah Manguso manages to convey in a few pages what many have tried, and failed, over entire lifetimes. While the acceptance of the ongoingness of life signals the (symbolic) end of an obsession of "bookending" life-events, it also points to a never-ending journey of moments -- recorded, forgotten, or swept away by time beyond the veil of our subconsciousness.