300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso
It was very hot the weekend I read Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments. Not even very hot, but apocalyptically hot I would say, in Oakland, where I live, in San Francisco, across the whole Bay Area. It was the weekend in late August when so many of us could hardly even breathe, when those of us who have never had asthma suddenly felt we had it, when temperatures in San Francisco supposedly reached an all-time high of 106 degrees, and when my smartest academic friends could barely put words together.
In this sense, 300 Arguments was the rightthing to read that weekend. Its short paragraphs and aphorisms didn’t require the long-term focus I didn’t have, wrapping me instead in a dense fog of associations, both relatable and not, intimate and distant, like a sensorial mirage. Take, for instance, the following three in a row:
A nonspecific wish to change the world isn’t about the world. It’s about you
I’ve written whole books in order to avoid writing other books.
One must be able to empathize with a suicide yet not become one.
Manguso’s book is more shady than personal, skirting individual experience for the impressions and maxims that surround it, skimmed from the surface of a speaker who remains in shadow. A friend tells me she thinks 300 Arguments is a waste of time—like, I could read Twitter if I wanted to read that kind of thing—but I think it’s stronger than that. Sure, it’s built for the attention span of a 106-degree day with nothing but access to the internet—but the book is also not made of exclusively separated fragments. Rather, its fragments work with the possibility of the fragment, with the belief that one can still create something even if one is not capable of long-form nonfiction or narrative storytelling at the moment. In this sense, it works with the belief that one can still write today, in this apocalyptic weather and with these insta-fragmented tweet-brains we have in our hands and on our shoulders.
The best form isn’t always the most efficient form.
I won’t lie—I was watching and reading other things while I read 300 Arguments, as we do. That night, I lay on Johnny and Chloe’s white carpeting with the two of them and Josh, while we had a sleepover because it was so hot and because Johnny and Chloe were moving away. We talked a lot and I began to teach Johnny to bake bread, but soon it got too hot to do anything of our own volition. So we lay on the carpet and watched The Great British Bake Off and laughed. I hadn’t watched television with other people in ages and let me tell you it is much more fun than binging alone. So too this heat: better with others, better with screens.
When the worst comes to pass, the first feeling is relief.
I don’t think I could’ve maintained focus on The Great British Bake Off by myself, but in Fruitvale, with Johnny and Chloe, under the heat of the afternoon, it kept me alive and relieved to be watching with everyone, melting ice on my own forehead, freezing water dripping into my eyes.
We hide in plain sight, in our bodies.
We laughed at the pastel British aesthetic, wowed by towering cakes, our running commentary reminding me of how I used to be that terrible friend in movie theaters when I was teenager, the one who would tell my neighbor what was happening, like, she is about to go into the house even though she shouldn’t or that’s the same guy from before but she can’t tell!
Sarah Manguso is also the same guy from before. There’s a familiarity to her fragments, a sense of self behind them—just a self that we don’t get to see all of at once.
To call a piece of writing a fragment, or to say it’s composed of fragments, is to say that it or its components were once whole but are no longer.
How I learned in Hebrew school as a kid that there once was a whole vessel that broke into shards with the creation of the universe. How our job is to slowly piece back together the pieces that we can, while knowing we’ll never be able to fully re-complete the vessel. Me, I’m tired of fragmentation as style. We have fragmented brains, and we still write. We have uncertain, Anthropocentric-climate-crisis-saturated-brains, and we still write. To me, books like 300 Arguments feel less stylized than natural in our oversaturated, overheated contemporary context.
In 300 Arguments there are boring bits, intentionally so, it seems. Bits that point toward the banalities of everyday life and of the work of generating writing:
When my husband does that dishes he always leaves some platter in the sink, some surface unwiped. I tried to correct the behavior until I remembered that if I finished everything in my Work in Progress folder I’m afraid I’ll die.
Aspiring to fame is aspiring to a life of small talk.
And there are bits that are sexier and hint at gossip, power dynamics, desire:
The affair is over, but at least things have gone somewhere, if only into oblivion. And maybe oblivion is what I wanted all along.
I didn’t do it for the money, says my friend who appeared in a pornographic film. I did it for the shame.
Either way, for me both equally traced away into the heat, the shame of this overheated body lying on Johnny and Chloe’s carpet watching a TV show with which my brain could make nothing, create no new knowledge, just sit like sponge cake absorbing all these polite, ever-so-unbelievably-polite British people helping each other out and not embarrassing each other too much when their frosting fails.
I did it for the shame…This phrase seems to echo throughout Manguso’s book. I did it for the allure of how we speak and think, the splintered brain, the heat wave that comes and keeps coming. I did it to write into it, to write of the daze, the stupor, of, the interlocking knowledge still being formed in these sweaty days of the overheated and the broken-down. —Leora Fridman