It’s Non-fiction week this week for Novellas in November and I’m kicking off with this short work by Sarah Manguso.
Reading 300 Arguments makes you feel like Manguso has given you all the jigsaw pieces and is asking you to put them together with no idea of what the finished piece should look like. The book is made up of short ‘arguments’ or aphorisms, exploring themes such as love, grief and the act of writing.
Late on in the book, Manguso states
Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages
300 Arguments feels like you are reading highlighted or bookmarked sentences, or someone’s clever Instagram posts. It has its moments, but for me is not overly successful.
There are concise and expressive statements on love, ‘like a vase, a heart breaks once. After that, it just yields to its flaws’ and the appreciation of the small moment of beauty that need to be remembered.
‘The first beautiful songs you hear tend to stay beautiful because better than beauty, which is everywhere, is the memory of first discovering beauty.’
There are starker moments of honest self-appraisal which seem to fit the description of ‘argument’ in that they ask you to question whether or not you agree. ‘You’ll never know what your mother went through’ is a truism that will mean something different to every reader.
There are passages that feel like condensed short stories, promising much more than they offer and offering just a framework of a feeling that can move from the personal of the author to the personal of the reader.
“There are people I wanted so much before I had them that the entire experience of having them was grief for my old hunger.”
At times though, these snippets can come across as glib or empty. When she states that ‘people congregate according to their relative levels of luck’ my first thought is to question rather than agree. And maybe that’s the point, but a phrase like ‘even inner beauty can fade too’ feels more throwaway than insightful.
The style of the book works well when Manguso is exploring self-doubt, particularly in terms of her work and these passages have a lot more heft than others, reflecting her need to write and to leave evidence about her life.
“I wish someone would tell me what I should be doing instead of this, that he’d be right, and that I’d believe him.”
The extent to which you find 300 Arguments interesting will depend on how you react to its very form. While some of the passages gave me pause for thought, I often felt that I was scrolling through someone’s Twitter feed and could find no hook to hang it all on. The tone of the writing is always serious, and the lack of humour or wit leaves the book on a monotone plane.
Towards the end Manguso states that ‘I like writing that is unsummarizable, a kernel that cannot be condensed, that must be uttered exactly as it is’. I do think she has achieved that in 300 Arguments, but whether or not it creates a satisfying reading experience is an argument all its own.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!