"Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book's quotable passages," Manguso writes. Imagine a long book like, say, Jennifer Moxley's The Middle Room, a mid-life memoir about writing as an art and as a career, about love, sex, and friendship, about mistakes made and lessons learned. Then imagine the book having 300 sentences or short passages you would tick in the margin or underline. Imagine those 300 marked sentences or short passages in a book all by themselves. That is what we have in 300 Arguments.
Maxims and aperçus that have become famous run to the inspirational, affirmative, and consolatory: "Be the change you want to see in the world," or "The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice," or "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all." Manguso tends to swing from the other side of the plate: "Inner beauty can fade, too," or "The most likable person you know just might be a sociopath."
So, Manguso may be our Rochefoucauld. As Swift wrote,
As with Rochefoucauld, the outlook is generally dark, but hard to disagree with, especially given how witty Manguso normally is: "Dying young can really help an art career along. It's the careerist's ultimate paradox."
But when the tone slips into the confessional--
The most fervent kiss of my life was less than five seconds long more than ten years ago with someone else's husband. It still hasn't quite worn off.
Or pays tribute--
Picture a locked storeroom strewn with all the old sheet music I had to give back to music teachers and choral directors, paper lying unused for decades, fading yellow, annotated in sharp pencil, the page containers of such joy that it sometimes choked me silent. No one who picks it up could know how it saved my life, over and over.
Or, as it often does in the final pages, sounds almost valedictory--
I want to shed my fears one by one until there is nothing left of me.
--when we get more than the hard sparkle of the illusionless, and we have something we never get from Rochefoucauld.