A Monolith of Whiteness: On Sarah Manguso’s “Very Cold People”

April 28, 2022   •   By Maddie Crum

Very Cold People

Sarah Manguso

AS A POET and lyric essayist, Sarah Manguso has expressed trepidation about — and, on occasion, criticism of — longer forms. “I’m not interested in artificial deceleration,” she wrote in 300 Arguments (2017), a collection of aphorisms she originally composed on Post-it Notes. “As soon as I see the glimmer of a consequence, I pull the trigger.” And later: “[A]n eight-hundred-page book is no more complete or unbroken than a ten-line poem. That’s confusing size with integrity.”

In her other works of nonfiction — The Two Kinds of Decay (2008), a memoir reflecting on her yearslong illness, a rare autoimmune condition poisoning her blood and leaving her numb; and Ongoingness (2015), a reckoning with her diary-keeping habit and her relationship with time after having a child — Manguso resists the narrative expectations of epiphany and forward momentum. Change isn’t willed or even occasioned. She doesn’t arrive at meaning so much as blow the dust off it, running her hands over nearly inscrutable glyphs.

Her first novel, Very Cold People, moves in the same way. Set in the fictional Massachusetts town of Waitsfield, where a family’s last name confers a sort of soft power and there’s a premium placed on proximity to the past, the book is narrated by Ruthie, a girl whose parents gave her no such name. When a Cabot or an Emerson got married, her mother hung the announcement on their fridge, an aspiration. She also “hung antique prints of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on the walls as if [they] lived inside a schoolgirl’s report on the United States of America.”

Ruthie’s miseducation — at school, at home, and while romping around Waitsfield with her friends Amber, Bee, and Charlie — is told through vignettes, not unlike the aphorisms from 300 Arguments. The kids who lived by the swamp “were the poorest in town and were assumed to have the most problems, or to have the sorts of problem that only a cop could fix,” a retrospective voice narrates. The town’s “so-called Indians were part of the environment, like cranberries and corn.”

These facts are presented as indisputable, and they pile up like snow, which piles up, too. Much of the novel’s first half serves the same extended metaphor: the people of Waitsfield, like the weather, are alienating, very white, and, yes, very cold. The family’s home fades into a grayish white; tombstones in graveyards are “like gray, crooked teeth.” The sameness of these images is suffocating, intentionally so. Ruthie is frank about who’s left out in the tempest: the “poorest in town,” along with the people who lived in Waitsfield before the Emersons and the Cabots, the “so-called Indians.” Meanwhile she and her family live quietly inside, warming their backs on old radiators, scrounging to pay the electricity bill. Ruthie’s voice is almost desolate when relating these small scenes; when she playfully collapses into a pile of snow, she doesn’t make an angel, but lies still. Finally, Manguso writes, “I extracted myself from the me-shaped hole, my cold, clean, aboveground grave.”

Ruthie begins to feel her way out, and her escapes are red, purple: strawberry-flavored lip balm, beads, and confetti strewn inside birthday invitations. The stuff of girlhood is bright, promising; this promise is the book’s main source of tension, delivered through glimmers of a world beyond Waitsfield, a town that freezes its residents in time. The most comparable narrative writer might be Annie Ernaux, with her images of a society obsessed with convention whose girls hatch plans for escape. Also, like Ernaux, Manguso’s focus zooms in and out, framing in turn a place’s collective traditions and her heroine’s particular experience of that place. Both writers depict girls who try and fail to grasp new experience, so consuming are the rules of their worlds. “The background of my life was white and angry, with violent weather,” Ruthie reflects. “It was considered a sign of character to swim outside in September, and I did that.”

This could be understood as insight into the rigid expectations of her hometown, but it also reads like a familiar, and nearly universal, portrayal of childhood. When her family jumps class and moves into a historic home once owned by a widow named Winifred, Ruthie, who by now has found pleasure in reading, imagines a lurid murder plot, not because there’s much evidence for it, but “because I wanted to have such power myself someday. I barely spoke, but my power was building up in me. I stockpiled it in silence.”

Much of the book is written in habitual time; discrete moments aren’t revealing of character, aren’t meaning-making. Insights and images recur, forming patterns that can be seen on looking back. One such pattern emerges for Ruthie and her friends in high school. A gym teacher can’t keep his hands to himself; a father can’t keep his hands to himself; a police officer who presents at the school can’t keep his hands to himself. It’s rumored that a tennis instructor can’t keep his hands to himself, but nobody really trusts Charlie about that sort of thing.

Manguso’s preference for patterns, for showing pain not as the result of a singular occurrence but of a cast of light, something in the air, suits the book’s subject. In a more conventionally dramatic story about Waitsfield’s sexual abuses, there’d be a sense of justice, or at least of closure, when the police officer commits suicide, presumably unable to manage his guilt. Instead, Ruthie’s classmates and their families reshape the facts to suit a more comfortable story, a story that will allow them to continue living quietly, incuriously, accepting of the power structures that give their subconsciously uncomfortable lives shape. And the cycle continues.

Another pattern that reveals itself slowly is the coolness of Ruthie’s mother, an aching source of mystery throughout her young life. As a toddler, Ruthie liked to have her hair stroked, but her mother refused. “She looked tired and sad, as if she wanted to take good care of me but knew that she couldn’t, that no one could protect a child from being hurt, that no one could take care of anyone,” she reflects. “What had happened to her was too horrible to say, so she never said it.”

Finally, she realizes that her mother, like her friends, had been abused, but she continues to suppress it all, per the town’s quiet insistence on propriety. And suppression has many consequences in Very Cold People: some girls are sent elsewhere, to carry out their teenage pregnancies in private; some girls take their own lives while others imagine they might, only to be hospitalized. Some finally move close by, but far enough away to see Waitsfield from a new vantage, as a disturbing monolith of whiteness.

The snow metaphor is spread a little thin by the end, prettily implying depth. Still, it turns out that Sarah Manguso’s hesitation about writing a novel led her to a story in which tension mounts slowly, almost imperceptibly, as if overnight. When clarity comes — when the curtains are pulled back in the morning, as it were — there it is, a stunning scene.

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Maddie Crum is a writer in Brooklyn.