The Two Kinds of Decay

by |
06/18/2008 12:00 AM |

Near the end of her graceful, wrenching memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay, Sarah Manguso admits that hers is “the usual sort of book about illness. Someone gets sick, someone gets well.” True, it’s nearly impossible to read her elegant account without thinking of other sobering personal narratives about sickness, especially Bee Lavender’s Lessons in Taxidermy and Susanna Kaysen’s The Camera My Mother Gave Me. But while Manguso’s is a familiar kind of story, it’s full of wisdom and horror that are uniquely its own.

In her early twenties, the author fell ill with a rare disease eventually diagnosed as CIDP, characterized (among other things) by temporary paralysis that occurs as immune cells begin attacking the body’s nerves. For years, Manguso put her life on hold as she checked in and out of hospitals and dreaded her next seemingly inevitable relapse. Reading the unhappy particulars of her experience, it’s a struggle to guard against the hypochondria this kind of “sick lit” so easily inspires — a reminder that witnessing someone else’s illness (whether firsthand or on the page) may tell us as much about ourselves as it does about the patient.

Manguso is generous with personal details, and vocal in her loathing for sentimentality. Early on, she describes lying under a pile of blankets during apheresis sessions, being infused with plasma that had been unfrozen and brought to room temperature. “I want to write a metaphor that will make a reader stop reading for a moment and think, Now I understand how cold it felt,” she writes. “But I’m just going to say it felt like liquid, thirty degrees colder than my body, being infused slowly but directly into my heart, for four hours.”

It’s here that the echoes of Susan Sontag’s brilliant Illness as Metaphor — in which that most iconic of intellectuals coolly railed against using shortcuts to talk about sickness — are clearest. Sometimes accuracy demands giving up the comfort of figures of speech, as Sontag so memorably insisted. With her strong, simple prose, Manguso similarly pays attention to the times when words can’t do enough.