"Very cold people" make something beautiful out of a painful childhood

VERY COLD PEOPLE By Sarah Manguso 191 pages. Hogart. $26. Anatomy may be fate, as Freud said, but geography is also a major factor. ...

By Sarah Manguso
191 pages. Hogart. $26.

Anatomy may be fate, as Freud said, but geography is also a major factor. The characters in Sarah Manguso’s debut novel, “Very Cold People,” seem literally shaped, like ice sculptures, by their home in a grim Massachusetts town. Although fictional, this town reflects certain aspects of New England – like the plaques on old houses and the “r’s” abandoned by the patricians. – with absolute and relentless precision.

The town’s name, Waitsfield, suggests a place whose inhabitants are dying for something to happen, or dying to leave. (No offense to the real-life Waitsfield, Vermont, who looks lovely.) “Impatient little thing!” thinks the protagonist, Ruthie, regarding a baby’s grave in the old local cemetery. Her childhood is set in the 1980s, but her restraints and cruelties have a 17th-century vibe.

In Waitsfield, snow is common, a constant inconvenience; it “gathered like dust” and “fell in clumps” and piled up in the aisles. Ruthie comes of age and hopefully plans her escape, over the course of 191 spare pages that would be even less if her story wasn’t told in short paragraphs separated by white space, like verse. Best known as a memoirist and essayist, Manguso also writes poetry, and it shows in her fiction. Although it deals with the ugly and messy truths of life, its writing is compact and beautiful.

Ruthie is an only child, Jewish and Italian in a milieu where being anything other than a Cabot, Lowell, or some other Mayflower-y name should be considered lesser, “off-white.” In kindergarten, she had what is now called selective mutism. “I was just a person who had nothing to share, nothing worth sharing,” she recalls, complaining to her “big pink teacher” for not understanding.

His family does not live in abject poverty (his father is an accountant), but there is clearly not enough money for comfort. At home, whose paint “had taken on the color of dirty snow”, the bathtubs can only be filled to hand height. Creditors are constantly calling, calls that Ruthie has to screen. Everyone saves and gives back; looking at pictures in catalogs and magazines often means having the real thing. Foods are processed or spoiled, and iced tea, lemonade, and milk are all made from powder, as if stained snow has crept all the way to the kitchen.

This may all be bearable for Ruthie, but her parents are mean; not in the sense of Massachusetts slang, but like Roald Dahl’s villains: alternately absent or far too present in the claustrophobia of their modest situation. Headboards rattle; scalp odor; private parts flash and flop. In “Very Cold People”, someone always seems to embarrassingly burst into the bathroom. There will be blood. Also phlegm, vomit and other bodily effusions. Even the relative refuge of the school auditorium during a play rehearsal evokes “the interior of a slaughtered animal, all in oxblood paint and brown velvet”.

Ruthie’s mother in particular — a depressed housewife who croaks and creaks from the bed she sometimes won’t leave — is hardworking, class-conscious to the point of nailing other families’ WASP-y wedding announcements on the refrigerator, obsessed with sex and marriage. “You look like a bride,” she told Ruthie in awe, wrapping her in eyelet sheets after surgery. She is also narcissistic and restrained, refusing to repeat the occasional affectionate gesture, such as a hair stroke or a playful squirt with a garden hose; oblivious even to the color of her daughter’s eyes, mocking her appearance with braces. “She wanted me to know I was ugly,” concludes a resigned Ruthie. “She was helping me prepare for the world.”

Manguso is terribly poignant about little Ruthie’s faith in a motherly love that doesn’t really exist, and her dawning understanding of what might have made it impossible. But in damning increments, she also shows how female identity in America can be constructed with material objects – dolls, Boy Scout badges, barrettes, makeup, glittering confetti (another echo of snow) – and then destroyed by violation, sexual and other . Inappropriate touch from a gym teacher; the remark of a shoe salesman; a friend’s creepy dad; frottage on the commuter train. All of these things are happening, in a time when such occurrences were often seen as non-reportable infractions, but simply a part of growing up – even building character.

“You can learn to eat violence,” Ruthie philosophizes about her encounters with a bully in the classroom. But inevitably, he will be disgorged in self-mutilation masked as self-soothing: tearing his hair out, peeling his fingernails, unswallowed meals stuffed into napkins. When migraines arrive, with their blinding halos, it’s almost a relief.

Manguso is so masterful at making beauty out of the boring old daily pain that when more dramatic plotlines come along – suicides, teenage pregnancies – they seem almost redundant, the visits of an after-school special. The book is strong enough as a collection of insults from a destitute childhood: a thousand cuts deliciously observed and survived. The effect is cumulative, and this novel borders on a new punch above its weight.

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"Very cold people" make something beautiful out of a painful childhood
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