Manguso does deliver some beautiful un-forgotten moments, their visceral immediacy brought into even sharper relief by the book’s largely abstract topography. We see her son feeding a piece of pancake to his little blue dog. We hear him calling everything “Bamboo!,” whispering the word to his teddy bear at night. At times my attachment to these anchoring flashes of concrete reality—my growing hunger for narrative and revelation, for a glimpse of the diary itself—made me feel inadequate, as if I weren’t good enough to appreciate the kind of book Manguso envisioned this one being: “a book without a single quote, a book about pure states of being.”
I couldn’t help missing the visceral texture of her first memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay, an exquisitely particular reckoning with a rare autoimmune disorder, and a book I still love deeply. In Ongoingness, Manguso comes close to a disavowal of the “obsessive, all-consuming” self-reflection involved in writing about her sickness. “The illness,” she writes, “wasn’t the real problem. Thinking about it was the problem.” But even as I felt complicit in that problem—guilty for wanting the more traditionally confessional narrative she’d once given me, guilty for wanting the diary she wouldn’t quote—I also appreciated that her new book was asking me to question my own hungers. I felt a different sort of proximity between us: not the intimacy of experience exposed—secrets or trysts, psychic depravities or bodily degradations—but the intimacy of self-interrogation laid bare.
The polish of Manguso’s prose stands in sharp contrast to the ragged texture of I Think You’re Totally Wrong, in which Shields and Powell (especially Powell) constantly interrupt each other’s epiphanies: “By focusing so much on art,” Shields wonders, “have I closed myself off so completely from—” But Powell stops him before he can finish his question. Their fractured back-and-forth implies that fruitful inquiry is provisional and open-ended, that epiphanies are most useful when challenged. At the same time, the rawness of their conversation—its friction, its banter, its splay—has been carefully sculpted. Its shagginess is calculated: “We’ll cut from live moment to live moment,” Shields declares, and after confronting Powell about his drinking, he acknowledges, “I’m doing this partly to get ‘a moment.’ ” The production of such “moments” is an effect Shields anticipated in Reality Hunger. “At once desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice, I know all the moments are ‘moments’: staged and theatrical, shaped and thematized.” In calling attention to its process, their conversation offers itself as unprocessed; admitting that it’s been constructed guarantees another sort of authenticity. “It’s staged,” Powell says, “but it can’t be fake.”
The premise of the book could easily play as straight farce: two self-involved and argumentative men argue with each other about … themselves. Often in a hot tub. (“You said you wanted homoerotic tension,” Powell says to Shields. “Were you hitting on me?”) But what unfolds is actually quite gripping, and they’re well aware of the farcical qualities. They approach Yeats’s “forced” choice as if they are characters in a morality play: Shields, a tenured professor whose six-figure salary comes up more than once, is “Work”; Powell, a stay-at-home dad whose writing career has never gotten off the ground, is “Life.” (The title of Powell’s unpublished novel, This Seething Ocean, That Damned Eagle, is “among the worst” Shields has ever heard, but Powell can “life-drop” plenty of experiences from his years abroad, telling anecdotes about his encounter with a transvestite in Western Samoa and scaling Huayna Picchu.) All along, their discussion of lofty questions (What is the purpose of writing? Can art make the world better?) is punctuated by the banalities of two men on vacation. They watch My Dinner With Andre, and Powell “snore[s] through all the major epiphanies.” On a hike through the woods, they’re talking about a weeping widow in Kabul when suddenly the scenery intervenes: “Hey,” Powell says, “this is a nice waterfall.”