The Disease of Disinheritance

Kate Zambreno, Book of Mutter

Semiotext(e), 184pp, £13.95, ISBN 9781584351962

reviewed by Adrian Nathan West

In his lecture on the metaphor, Borges speculates that abstract thought demands the suppression of the traces of bodily experience inherent to its language: the being with the stars that is consideration, the incubation that is brooding, the distance that abides inside of longing. His observation is germane to a dichotomy proposed by Kate Zambreno in 2012’s Heroines, which perseveres in the just-published Book of Mutter. Both are meditations on women’s lives as raw material, where all the many senses of the words raw and material are meant, and the violations represented for them by the cognate terms composition and composure. To compose oneself, in one’s comportment or one’s prose, Zambreno contends, requires subordination to canons of male taste that denature the raw material of experience. In Heroines, her subjects were literary wives, great and doomed – Vivien Eliot, Zelda Fitzgerald, Jane Bowles – accommodated in, perhaps shaped by, the gaze of the narrator, a young writer who follows her husband to Dayton, Ohio and Durham, North Carolina, where she struggles to find a sense of legitimacy as an artist and a person. In Book of Mutter, she examines – ostensibly, askance – the years of grief and confusion following a mother’s death.

Again, as in Heroines, and to a lesser extent in Green Girl (2011), she examines misfortune at times through her totem authors’ eyes, and at times drawing strength from their company. The title refers to an apercu of Kafka’s from the diaries:

Today it occurred to me I did not always love my mother as she deserved and as I could, only because the German language prevented it. The Jewish mother is no ‘Mutter,’ to call her ‘Mutter’ makes her a little comical...

Barthes, Handke, Louise Bourgeois join the chorus of citations scattered like waymarks through this mournful, fragmentary text, which dwells around, without answering – as though the attempt were the only answer possible – the question, which in the text is posed without a question mark: ‘What does it mean to write what is not there. To write an absence.’

The facts of the mother are meagre and overwhelmingly mundane: she drinks scotch, wears a white floppy hat, buys panty hose in a plastic egg at the pharmacy. In her purse, among other things, are a used tissue, a lotion sample, and crumbled tobacco leavings from cigarettes long-since smoked. Such details, more poignant for their scarcity, do not give rise, as in Proust, to the solace of layered evocations, but attest to a vacancy that writing cannot amend. Repeatedly, the author speaks of ‘my mother . . . in my memory,’ evincing the gulf between recollection and real knowledge.

From the first, Zambreno presents remembrance as a burden. Her book opens with an anecdote of the narrator at 18, hired to help a senile woman organise her papers. The work is exasperating, the woman cannot remember her from one week to the next, and the girl starts skipping, and finally stops going altogether. ‘I just abandoned her,’ she says. ‘Perhaps that’s why she still haunts me.’ Soon afterward, she quotes Louise Bourgeois, who describes herself as a prisoner to memories she seeks to exorcize with her cage-like sculptures.

Zambreno’s writing is associative, invoking figures from Renée Falconetti, Lady Bird Johnson, and Natalie Wood to Hélène Cixous. In part, her motives are archeological: the desire to disinter the hidden presences she has described as the ‘connective tissue’ of recognised greatness; in part, the mania for citation places her in a long line of works stretching from the Divine Comedy to Büchner’s Lenz (1839) to Alain Borer’s Rimbaud in Abyssinia (1991), in which artistic forbears light the writer’s way; but beyond that, the oblique approach, the sense that there is something unseemly or presumptuous about direct address, seems fundamental to Zambreno’s method.

Very early in the book, the narrator becomes taken with Henry Darger, the solitary custodian whose three illustrated novels, totalling some 20,000 pagse, have made him an icon of outsider art, so-called. Upon reading in his biography that the central fact of Darger’s life was his mother’s early death, she feels a kinship with this person engaged, like her, in ‘compulsive autobiography.’ The knowledge that his grave and her mother’s lie in the same cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois ‘catalyzes something,’ though she does not yet know what, and offers a less direct channel for the sorrow that stifles her in other parts of the book.

Darger’s reclusion, his humility and evident kindness, seem to mark him as a kind of exemplar, but the mad profusion of his work warns the author of the insufficiency of accumulation. Tenderness and yearning are wedded to the singular, which is easily lost amid abundance: hence, forgetting is essential to commemoration. One might recall here Beckett’s distinction between memory as an instrument of reference and as an instrument of discovery: ‘He who has a good memory remembers nothing because he forgets nothing.’

The story of the narrator’s mother is essentially vague, and only acquires weight in the scattered minutiae offered up like evidence before a courtroom. Zambreno’s dry tone draws the reader into her bewilderment, and one returns to these few, seemingly arbitrary details as though repetition could make them something more. Her mother’s name was Gale. She was born in 1946 or 47, lived in Glen Rock, New Jersey and in the Chicago suburbs, was attentive to her hair and makeup, woke at 5:00 AM to clean the house. She smoked, she died of lung cancer. She had a sweet tooth, she listened to Italian lessons on tape in the kitchen, preparing for a trip to Europe, never taken. No orderly pattern, no telos permits one to say her life, and hence her death, fulfilled their purpose, and can be set aside. Instead, there is the bare sense of loss, and the ‘hoarding of facts, like some kind of proof.’

From the time of her first book, the caustic O Fallen Angel (2009), Zambreno’s writing has always dissented: to the ‘American nuclear family the nuclear bomb the white picket fence’; to the labels and diagnoses that have consigned writers as diverse as Djuna Barnes and Simone de Beauvoir to the subclass of ‘women’s writers’; but throughout her work, and most importantly, to the subordination of writing to authorship and hence to an authority that may grade into smugness. In the words of Urs Widmer, “The writing is important, not the book,” and this principle is in force here. Book of Mutter obeys an aesthetics of hesitancy, of muttering, of accession to enigmas, which grants her prose unusual honesty and force.
Adrian Nathan West is the author of The Aesthetics of Degradation as well as translator of numerous works of contemporary European literature. His essays, fiction and criticism have appeared in McSweeney’s, 3:AM, the Times Literary Supplement and Asymptote, where he is a contributing editor.