Poets have long approached the cold with a shiver of respect, aligning it with the least hospitable, most mysterious kinds of truth. Samuel Coleridge wondered at “the secret ministry” of frost. Robert Frost wrote that he grasped “enough of hate” to know that the apocalypse might come draped in ice. And Elizabeth Bishop compared knowledge—the real, pure stuff—to freezing water: “If you should dip your hand in, / your wrist would ache immediately, / your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn / as if the water were a transmutation of fire / that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.”
These poets were evoking a type of understanding—that the universe was not made for humans, even if humans find it beautiful—that is often associated with middle or late life. With her début novel, “Very Cold People,” the poet and memoirist Sarah Manguso weaves it into the coming-of-age tale. The book follows Ruthie, an only child growing up in the fictional town of Waitsfield, Massachusetts. Waitsfield is old, rich America, full of Cabots, Lowells, and houses “with little gabled windows like third eyes opening.” Ruthie, whose parents are Jewish and Italian, wears outlet-store sweaters and pockets other people’s trash. Her world is animated by two axioms: it’s cold, and she hates her mother. At home, where she sits, bundled up, with her back against the radiator, “the cold was just everywhere.” Blowing through her memories is “the powder of the coldest days, too cold to melt, squeaking at the boot.” Ruthie’s mother makes fun of her daughter’s braces and wears “cheap shiny nightgowns” over “her lumpy body.” Yet there are hints of a more complicated story. Ruthie relays a vision of herself, as a girl, playing with her mom: “I laughed so hard I thought I might burst.” A reader senses a thrum of love beneath the harshness.
The book has a fairy-tale quality, a ring of the nursery rhyme. There’s something schematic about Amber, Bee, and Charlie, Ruthie’s closest friends in Waitsfield. Amber, whose father works as a mechanic, is confident and kind. Bee, whose father made his money in construction, is soft and shy. Charlie, who has a maid and lives in a Victorian manse, is mature and aloof. Each girl represents a different shading of social caste, but Ruthie watches as they all attract the attentions of older men. Amber pairs off with her own half brother; a tennis coach starts sleeping with Charlie; Bee’s father places her on his lap so that she can pretend to drive his sports car. The book’s symmetries, prototypical figures, and brutality heighten the Grimmish mood. You half expect the characters to be devoured by wolves.
Here, as in many fairy tales, a feeling of magic corresponds to the feeling of the unknown. With its adult narrator trying to recover the intuitions of her younger self, “Very Cold People” reminded me of “My Brilliant Friend,” the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. Like Ferrante’s Lila and Lenu, Ruthie is sharply attuned to a force she doesn’t understand. Something is pushing through the cracks in the walls, the felted wool of her coat, but she lacks the context or language to name it. For the Italian girls, the invisible power was political violence: Lila and Lenu interpret Don Achille, the neighborhood’s fascist thug, as an ogre who eats children. For Ruthie, the unseen current is some combination of class, whiteness, and the widespread sexual abuse of children. When Bee’s mother, who may or may not be complicit in this abuse, refers to tater tots as “b’day-does,” she might as well be a sorceress, the patrician phrase an incantation.
“Very Cold People” is itself a very cold book, with banks of white space piled up around Manguso’s short, accretive paragraphs. The most significant incidents—a slap, a seduction, a suicide—exist only as rumors, referred to after the fact, and the material that does make it to the page behaves like anti-narrative. “With my chewing gum I could blow a bubble inside a bubble,” Ruthie announces, in a detailed passage about all the boring things she does when she is bored.
Manguso has written seven other books, two of poetry and the rest autobiographical nonfiction. She belongs to a cohort of minimalist, stream-of-consciousness writers—Jenny Offill, Sheila Heti, Eula Biss—whose texts work out the equations of domestic life and creative ambition. “Ongoingness,” from 2015, was a spare meditation on the eight-hundred-thousand-word diary that Manguso has kept since she was a teen. “300 Arguments,” a kind of self-quoting commonplace book, reaffirmed the author’s interest in the aphoristic fragment. Full of dictums like “Inner beauty can fade, too” and “You might as well start by confessing your greatest shame,” it was mostly about her attempts to work. Manguso’s method is to break narrative into wisps of inner life and bits of observation. She marshalls the means of poetry (compression, obliqueness) for essayistic ends, pursuing not the finished thought but the feeling of thinking.
Her work is especially haunted by the themes of omission and replacement. Not far into “300 Arguments,” Manguso invites us to think of what we’re reading as selected sentences from an unborn novel. “Ongoingness,” despite being an extended consideration of the author’s journaling practice, never quotes from her journals directly. Though Manguso often emphasizes her interest in the mundane—she has described wanting to attend to the “empty time between memorable moments”—she doesn’t appear to enjoy banality for its own sake. Rather, one senses the content of her prose being subordinated to its function, which is to hold the place of an unbearably sublime and important message. “Ongoingness” compares itself to a blank sheet of paper urgently printed off a Xerox machine.
“Very Cold People” finds Manguso recommitting to this logic of substitution. What’s new may be her suggestion that such logic is regional: the signature of repressed New England minds. (In an interview, Manguso noted her decades-old desire to write about her Boston childhood.) For Ruthie’s community, replacing a freighted something with an innocuous nothing is more than a psychic process or an aesthetic sensibility. It’s a way of life. And Manguso seems particularly caught on how the threats that are ushered out of sight in Waitsfield refuse to stay hidden. They slosh and seep; they infect the surfaces that conceal them. Consider this description of a police officer who gives safety presentations at Ruthie’s elementary school:
We know before we know that Officer Hill is dangerous. We know in the same partial, dreamlike way that the whole town knows. In this sense, Manguso’s writing approximates Waitsfield’s spirit, allowing her to weaponize the poetic principle that the words uttered in lieu of other words are never actually empty. This rule is especially clear when Manguso applies it to the apparent blankness that is the color white. Throughout the novel, whiteness is no sooner evoked than soiled: tending to a neighbor’s baby, Ruthie’s mother creates a mountain of used “quilted cloths,” which emit a “faint odor of sour milk.” There are menstrual pads the color of winter. In the metaphor’s least subtle incarnation, Ruthie imagines her parents’ “off-whiteness”—their ancestors not having been on the Mayflower—becoming gossip by the time the paint on their new house dries. Eventually, Manguso adds, the house fades to “the color of dirty snow.”
Through this imagery, “Very Cold People” highlights the depredations of racial whiteness, how the category, rather than negating identity, binds its own powerful interest group. Whiteness is that “neutral” thing which is thrown up in place of an unspoken threat: race. And yet Manguso addresses race and ethnicity only at the level of metaphor, and the book’s approach to class feels almost as gestural. She recalls the shame of eating “a bag of crackers for lunch and a box of macaroni and cheese for supper,” but she doesn’t seem to view social prejudice or economic inequality as New England’s original sin. That honor goes, too neatly, to the systematic sexual abuse of children. Prepared as carefully as a Jenga tower, the book’s crowning revelation is that Ruthie’s mother, too, was molested. By the final pages, the novel’s full store of frigidity seems to have spilled from one tap.