The rich rule everything, everyone knows that. The ‘great and the good’ can do whatever they want with little risk, even from the law. There is little anyone else can do but try and survive, and woe betide those who do not ‘fit.’ This is the starting point of Sarah Manguo’s most recent novel, Very Cold People. At 191 pages it is closer to a novella but is not one page too short, everything needed, and a little more, to get at Munguso’s main point. There are some who agree with Roland Barthes that the author is dead and books aren’t meant to have a message. They might want to try to explain that to every polemicist, satirist and parodist in the world, either living or dead, but to each their own.
Traditional in some ways but not others, Manguso’s writing style is unlike most seen in traditional print publishing outside prose poetry. Written in self-contained texts separated by line- breaks and the occasional lie, not an indent or justification to be found, the entire reads more like a terse teenager’s diary, which works really well in terms of the story, for reasons that will soon become clear.
Rooted in old-school pastoralism, with elements of American Gothic, think the Brontë sisters without the romance and written for the twitter generation, the story takes place in the fictional town of Waitsfield in rural Massachusetts, near Salem at least in spirit, where secrets and danger lay buried in the landscape like landmines. Outsiders and misfits are especially at risk, the title referring to both the climate and the souls of those trapped in Waitsfields hold. Brought into sharp focus on page 180: “All the Waitsfield girls, in their little rooms, all through the town, lie down and wait and breathe.”
Ruthie, the novel’s first-person narrator, is not one of the ‘great and the good.’ The recent descendant of Italian-Jewish immigrants, she has a much different life than the Cabots and the Lowells, the two founding families in the area, still under the impression that they own it. Hers is a world of second-hand clothes and cracked paint on windowsills, standing in stark opposition to the ‘estates’ like the ones: “on Pond Road, which my mother told me was the most expensive street in town.”
Written with a brutal realism and firm grip on Sod’s Law, it is telling that Manguso chose a vulnerable and visceral first-person narrative approach, causing most readers to resonate with Ruthie’s victories as well as feel her frustration and pain. The main thing Ruthie has going for her is a strong sense of clarity, laid out most starkly in a late-stage epiphany: “It occurred to me that there was a third way, besides dying or getting pregnant, for a girl to get out of Waitsfield. You could go crazy, by which I mean you could agree to be the person whom everyone else in town would bring up, for the rest of their lives, as a tragic example.”
Born in the far north, T.S. McNeil was attending art galleries before he could walk. Earning concurrent degrees in Art History and Political Science, he has written on Arts and Culture both in print and online since 2002, starting while still in college. He lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog, and firmly believes that Marie-Gabrielle Capet was criminally underrated.