Sarah Manguso explores memory and form in her debut novel, ‘Very Cold People’

In a virtual event hosted by Elizabeth McCracken at Greenlight Books, Manguso discussed her highly anticipated debut novel.

Picture of Sarah Manguso. She has shoulder-length brown curly hair, red lipstick and is looking directly at the camera with her hand on her chin.

Sarah Manguso presents her new novel, “Very Cold People,” on Feb. 16 in a Zoom conversation with Elizabeth McCracken. (Photo by Beowulf Sheehan)

Elle Liu, Contributing Writer

Poet and author Sarah Manguso sat down with “Bowlaway” author Elizabeth McCracken to discuss her new book, “Very Cold People,” in a virtual event hosted by Greenlight Bookstore on Feb. 16. 

Manguso has previously published poetry, memoirs and other nonfiction. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, Hodder Fellowship and Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize Fellowship. “Very Cold People” is her debut novel, and its release has been highly anticipated. 

Manguso is a fiercely smart writer. Her remarks on her writing process illuminated exactly what great slice-of-life narratives should reflect: How we remember moments. 

In “Very Cold People,” the novel’s narrator Ruthie grows up in the 1980s in Waitsfield, a small New England town. Waitsfield is a cold and quiet place, and Ruthie’s narration reflects this. 

The book is made up of small units of descriptions — memories that Ruthie looks back on. A quiet observer of her own life, Ruthie’s first-person accounts are innocent and passive at first — but, as Ruthie grows up, her anecdotes grow bleaker as she encounters sexual abuse and witnesses cruelty both at school and at home. However, Ruthie still holds out hope as she pictures a life away from the suffocating small town.

Manguso employs snippet-like scenes in her writing to create a coming-of-age story about generational trauma, abuse and perseverance. From the short units of text on the page, what emerges is a beautiful story, crafted out of something that can be seen as cold or ugly. 

In the webinar, Manguso discussed minimalism and fragmented narratives, two terms that have been used to describe her prose. The former she doesn’t mind. The latter she finds fault with. 

“It’s common to see whitespace on the page and conclude that what you’re reading are fragments,” Manguso explained. “A fragment is something that is broken. But if something is small, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is broken.”

The short blocks of text compose a collection of moments that come together to form a cohesive whole. In short, although the novel is broken up, it’s still a narrative — unified and complete. Manguso’s writing is lyrical and concise. Minimalism, to her, represents a different way to stylistically articulate memory. 

“There’s a kind of pleasure of using as few materials as possible to get the job done,” she said.

For example, in one scene in “Very Cold People,” Ruthie finds a green garden hose on the ground. “The hose had been left on,” Manguso writes. “I tried to calculate the amount of water that had been wasted. What are we gonna do? I asked the other kids. They didn’t answer. Adrenaline spilled into my blood. Water poured into the muddy ground.” 

In her novel, memories like these are often quotidian, but never banal. Manguso’s scenes are written in a way that mimics the way we remember them. With arresting specificity, Manguso writes about these fragments of moments. Ruthie is often muted — instead, the text focuses on the people and places that surround her. The novel that emerges is one that mimics memories and evokes interiority. In the webinar, McCraken noted that “the book presents these details in a way that is immediate and monumental to childhood. It’s not nostalgic.” 

This is, perhaps, because much of the novel is based on Manguso’s own memories. “I am a rememberer,” Manguso said in response to a question about her research for the book.   

“I remember just five pages or five details out of a book or one bathroom out of a school and I remember it with such vivid clarity that it crowds out the surrounding material,” she said. “And it’s wonderful to excavate, mine and expel.” 

Manguso’s writing reflects how people remember lived experiences — often passive, often in pieces, but brilliantly clear and subjectively monumental.

What we all want to experience while reading is a feeling of recognition. Sometimes this recognition manifests itself in the form of truth or memory-sharing. This is precisely what Manguso’s writing does. You can see her world reflected in your own.

“Very Cold People” is available to purchase through Greenlight Bookstore or wherever books are sold.

Contact Elle Liu at [email protected].