MAY 19, 2020
KATE ZAMBRENO’S READING is, to hear her describe it, obsessive, fragmentary, and above all, circular. Her movie watching, too. In her recent books she returns to the same writers and filmmakers — Rainer Maria Rilke, Roland Barthes, Chantal Akerman — again and again, mining their output for whatever understanding it can bring to her own life, or simply thinking through their works because they absorb her. Her actual experience of reading/watching these texts, though, is no less circular than her method of seeding them throughout her own work. In her newest book, Drifts, which is marketed as a novel but reads more as a genre-defying diary of everyday textures, Zambreno provides some insight into her watching and viewing process. Early on in the book, the book’s narrator, a (presumably) lightly fictionalized version of Zambreno, tells us that she reads Robert Walser’s novel The Tanners (Geschwister Tanner, 1907) “in short increments each season, never finishing.” Later, she records watching the beginning of Chris Marker’s essay film Sans Soleil (1983) over and over on a loop and, at another moment, inspired by the example of Marker’s narrator, she does the same with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
This process of watching, lingering on, replaying specific moments without a desire to move forward, to reach an end, is characteristic of Zambreno’s writing, as well; a body of work, now seven books strong, that feels less like a collection of individual volumes than a single ongoing project. Her first two books, O Fallen Angel, published in 2009, and Green Girl, from 2011, were the closest Zambreno came to writing what could reasonably be recognized as a novel. O Fallen Angel is a warped fairy tale that twists and abuses the language of nursery rhymes to paint a dark portrait of familial dysfunction, while Green Girl employs a clipped, fragmentary language to tell the story of an alienated and unpopular young American woman living in London. But it was with her third book, Heroines, published in 2012, that Zambreno first gestured toward the type of writing that would define the rest of her work to date. Melding memoir and criticism of the most impassioned and excitingly tendentious sort, Zambreno recouped the lives and works of several generations of the “mad wives of modernism,” those women whose pathologies were mined by their writer husbands for material and who were dismissed, in many cases, as mentally ill, their own talents ignored.
This hybrid form, in which her own life reflects and is reflected by the women she writes about, is one Zambreno would continually reshuffle in her subsequent books, adjusting the balance between the personal and the critical in each subsequent volume. Five years after Heroines, she inaugurated what could be considered the second phase of her career. Book of Mutter, a project 13 years in the making, appeared in 2017, a series of fragments reflecting on her mother’s death as experienced by her in fact and remembrance, and filtered through her interactions with the work of Roland Barthes, Louise Bourgeois, and other touchstones. It is a book of rhythms and textures, a circular meditation that approximates the ongoingness of grief and the nonlinearity of memory. It is also, in its attempts to exorcise her mother’s spirit, “[t]o put these memories in a book, so as to be released from it,” apparently a failure. Two years later, Zambreno brought out a satellite text, Appendix Project (2019), that deals in the omissions and loose ends of the earlier volume. A collection of talks and essays Zambreno gave and wrote in the aftermath of Book of Mutter’s publication while she was preoccupied with caring for her newborn baby, Appendix Project is born of Zambreno’s compulsion “to keep on circling back to my failures and errata in my attempt at writing this now published book.”
The “attempt” part is key, as becomes clear in reading her new book, Drifts, in which Zambreno’s affinity for the provisional, the unfinished, the uncertain, becomes something of an operating principle. Drifts follows the 2019 publication of Screen Tests, a collection of short sketches and meditations that is arguably her most purely pleasurable book, but seems to pick up more directly from the work done in Book of Mutter and Appendix Project. Nominally a work of fiction, but very clearly autobiographical, Drifts not so much renders the question of genre irrelevant but charts the search for a new genre, a search that Zambreno has been pursuing her whole career. More attuned to the quotidian than Book of Mutter (Zambreno: “I’ve been reading a biography of Rilke and am thinking of how he viewed art as sacred, how it was necessary to refuse the exigencies of the day[.] […] I feel so far away from this. Bring me the exigencies of the day”), Drifts is no less dependent on the rhythms by which fragments of language both intersect with each other and behave internally.
Drifts unfolds as a diary or journal of a year and a half of Kate Zambreno’s life (or that of her fictionalized stand-in) as she ekes out a somewhat precarious existence as an adjunct professor, becomes pregnant with her first child, and haltingly attempts to finish the writing of the book we are reading. In this sense, the blurring of boundaries between a fictionalized persona and the real author, the metanarrative about the creation of the present volume, Drifts fits in with the popular subgenre of autofiction. But Zambreno’s is an example of a very different type. Early on in the book, she notes that “a prominent writer of so-called autofiction, with a half-million-dollar advance on his last book” — unnamed, though clearly Ben Lerner — “wins the so-called genius grant.” While she and her friends wonder why their own brand of autofiction is unlikely to win similar awards, she reflects on the difference between her methods and Lerner’s. “How did this writer have the confidence to write his novel seemingly in real time, over a year?” she wonders. “When we take years just thinking and taking notes?” For her, though, this is not a mere complaint, although it is that, too. It is, at its core, a “philosophical concern,” with the differences in the two writers’ attitudes toward time at its root. Lerner’s tightly constructed novel, which mirrors the rapid process of its creation, is antithetical to Zambreno’s methods, which prizes ongoingness and texture over narrative and pinpoint control. Her mission is not to transcend time but to record the way it feels to live caught up in its unruly drifts.
Her mission is also to find a form that allows her to do this. Envisioned as the first in a series of “feminist hangover” books in which her narrators are “wrestling with the larger question of how to be a writer in the contemporary, within capitalism and publishing,” Drifts focuses on Zambreno’s attempts to get the current book to press in time, trying on various forms as it goes, all of which are sure not to please her editors. “The publishing people told me that I was writing a novel,” she writes at the beginning of the book, “but I was unsure. What I didn’t tell them is that what I longed to write was a small book of wanderings, animals.” And, in a sense, this is what she does, even if most of the wanderings are mental rather than physical; she sticks pretty close to her Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood. There is certainly plenty of attention paid to animals, as Zambreno writes sensitively of her interactions with those in her neighborhood, particularly the feral cats on her block and her little terrier Genet, with whom she, continually, stares “at the purple butterfly bush at the bottom of the steps” in one of the many drifts born of her “frequent desire to do nothing.” For the rest, Zambreno spends her time recording her correspondence with her writer friends, attending to her own body (a process that becomes more intensive once she gets pregnant), reporting on her occasional wanderings to Manhattan or upstate to teach, and, above all, reflecting on the life and work of her current set of literary and artistic favorites, particularly those of Rilke, whose struggles to bridge the art/life divide mirror Zambreno’s own, and dominate the book’s back half.
At its heart, though, Zambreno’s genre questing is a gesture toward silence. Early in the book, her narrator notes that “[s]omewhere in the piles on my desk, I could excavate a stained, partial printout” of Susan Sontag’s classic 1967 essay, “The Aesthetics of Silence.” That essay outlines and reflects upon the tendency of contemporary artists to move toward an ideal of silence in their work, either by emptying out their works of extraneous elements, by producing difficult work that creates silence in its failure to communicate, or by literally refusing to make art. These efforts toward silence can be pursued for a number of reasons, whether as a sort of spiritual clearing of the palate or by asserting the artist’s independence, freeing themselves “from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, consumer, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter” of their work. Whatever form it takes, though, this aesthetics of silence offers its practitioners the potential for enormous freedom.
Although Zambreno doesn’t quote directly from Sontag’s essay, it clearly speaks to her own desires to write a quiet, emptied-out book, her “small book of wanderings, animals,” that effectively asserts her independence from the folks at Riverhead Books and anyone else who might make her “communicate” in a traditional sense. Throughout Drifts, Zambreno repeatedly returns to this urge. “I want to get to a space without words,” she writes midway through, “but what then? To get to a space without words, are you then cured of writing? Like Wittgenstein attempting to overcome philosophy.” Calling on the Austrian-British philosopher, another one of her touchstones, who famously wished to “solve” philosophy, Zambreno asserts her own desire to overcome writing, to get to the pure and blessed state of silence, where neither patron nor consumer can hold any power over her.
But if all speech, all communication is transcended, what is left for the writer to do? “What then,” indeed? This is a problem that tempts Zambreno, but not one whose difficulties she need fully embrace; for her the desire for silence, to either not write the book or withhold herself entirely from that book, is always balanced by a need to tell. “Drifts is my fantasy of a memoir about nothing,” she writes early on. “I desire to be drained of the personal. To not give myself away.” But this, of course, is little more than fantasy, one she has no hope of fulfilling. She can no more refrain from writing the self than Ludwig Wittgenstein can stop from philosophizing. And so, she fills her book with intimate details of her daily life, with reflections on her changing pregnant body, with the exciting wanderings of her mind, as she painstakingly records “[t]he garbage can and the neighbors and the vomit and the slowly read Lispector.”
Drifts then is a refusal of old forms that cannot wholly dispense with them, a diary of daily textures that inscribes the self even as it attempts to transcend it. It is also many other things: an intellectual autobiography, a consideration of the art/life dichotomy, a compendium of gentle literary gossip (Zambreno in Heroines: “God I love literary gossip”). In the end, it is a chronicle of what it feels like to be a specific person in a specific set of circumstances, a chronicle of what it’s like to think through those circumstances in a specific way. While this may diverge significantly from the goals of the novelistic form that her publishers expect her to follow, it is the exact ambition of the evolving genre-curious/nongenre that Zambreno continues to push forward with each new book, never more effectively than in this latest volume.