Feministing Reads: Ongoingness and Her 37th Year

Let’s call it the micro-novel. Characterized by an assemblage of fragments, the micro-novel understands itself as a work in miniature. Its organizing units––single sentences, short chapters, or anaphoric phrases––add up to small, slender books, about the length of a novella, but with a focus on formal experimentation. They prioritize variations on a theme, explorations of a process, over the unity of a narrative.

Although the form technically leaves the author free to experiment with subjects, the micro-novel’s greatest practitioners have consistently chosen similar concerns: 1) quasi-autobiographical explorations of mortality and its associations (aging, slowing, inertia, ennui), 2) art-making as simultaneously a refuge and reckoning with one’s own mortality/decay/statis, 3) neo-cubist references that refract philosophical, personal, and literary reflections on subjects 1) and 2) above. I’m thinking here of the slender works of David Markson, Lydia Davis, Edouard Leve, Jenny Offill, E.M. Cioran, and Joe Brainard, whose collective style––at once permissive and terse, auto-fictional and sly––has spawned swarms of emulators.

Released this March, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso and Her 37th Year: An Index by Suzanne Scanlon mark two recent exponents of the micro-noveling phenomenon. In 144 pages, Manguso writes epigrammatically about the diary she’s kept for twenty-five years; In 157, Scanlon writes an index, its entries in the style of lyrical vignettes, to commemorate her 37th year. We are not given access to Manguso’s diary nor to the story indexed by Scanlon. The master texts are missing; their peripheral commentary becomes the center.

These residues of absent literatures are animated by paradox. In Ongoingness, the diary is an effort to contain each moment and yet, naturally, so many moments slip away.

ongoingnessEarly on Manguso claims she isn’t writing to anyone. But of course this isn’t true: she’s writing to herself, addressing her own retrospective reading in the future. “I wrote it to stand for me utterly,” she admits, in one passage, and yet, paradoxically, she is a “me” that is always a future self––one that can’t bear the revelations of her past. On a computer, she meticulously edits her diary, choosing what parts of her life, to omit, to forget, to erase. She wants to get things “down right,” going as far as throwing out the year 1996, failing to find within it anything of interest.

At the heart of these contradictions is a desire beyond reason: “I wanted to remember what I could bear to remember and convince myself it was all there was.” This blocked wish––that if we alter what has passed, we might just be able to control the future––begins to take on a stubborn, almost naïve insistence. A carefully curated exercise, her diary begins to appear as a museum and mausoleum for the self.

Though diaries are associated with virtues, Manguso claims her practice as a vice: she can’t not write it. Writing, for her, seems to contain all of the self-reflection of Yoga and sad narcissism of Instagram. Instead of living, Manguso spends time brooding about her lost memories. I wanted badly for Zadie Smith to tell her, as she tells Rookie readers in a recent essay on why she’s never kept a diary: “Forget it! At that rate the writing of the life will take longer than the living of it.” Eventually, though, Manguso does forget it: she quits her daily practice, as the book’s subtitle, “The End of a Diary,” might suggest.

A celebration and a tragedy—the death of her mother-in-law and birth of her son—rupture the rhythm of her daily practice. Self-reflection gives way to the all-consuming rhythm of maternal concerns. Procreation replaces the diary as the promise of posterity. The book, ultimately, ends up not as an ode to remembrance, but to forgetting, to letting go.

37th yearHer 37th Year: An Index is also haunted by the remembrance of things past. Scanlon juggles the story of an affair, ex-lovers, and a stay in a mental hospital in her youth, as she reflects on growing older. The longing for the other man, for her lost youth, invoke the capital-L Lack defined by Lacan: the object of desire that through generating desire always remains out of reach. The lack in the center of the book is not only the missing story the index evokes, but the passing of time, which in order to have value, must always be running out. On the productive uses of this void, in the entry for “Emptiness,” Scanlon draws on Maggie Nelson: “For some, the emptiness itself is God; for others, the space must stay empty.”

These fears about memory, death, and aging constantly seep through the novel’s short paragraphs, filtered through the referenced voices of others. Kathy Acker’s there. And Eileen Myles on being “punk about aging” and Simone Weil on grace and spirituality and Elizabeth Hardwick on New York Jewish intellectuals and Chris Kraus on “female writing” and countless others too. The index is rightly Scanlon’s party, but the length of her guest list can grow tiresome.

Scanlon’s project is strongest when she draws on anecdotes, on descriptive memories denied us by Manguso:

McCarthy, Mary (see also: Whitney Museum of American Art), Leaving the Paul Thek show, you run into a woman who once became famous for writing about female sexual desire; it will feel strange or wonderful or serendipitous. As a girl, this writer inspired you. You may have even moved to New York, chosen Barnard, because of her. You touch her arm. She nods, asks about your baby. You think about her sex life. You talk about her grandchildren and your grandmother and breastfeeding. “She wants to look at art,” her husband will say, cutting her off, leaving you alone.

Leaving us alone, Scanlon and Manguso ask us to care deeply about a life without giving us its story, its secret. The elision makes them bold, and, occasionally, boring.


Ava Kofman is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. She is a guest contributor to Feministing.

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