Locked in a Creative Struggle, With Rilke as Her Guide

By Kate Zambreno

Midway through Kate Zambreno’s new book, “Drifts,” a student asks her professor, “Didn’t you write, like, one of those ‘girl’ novels?,” to her professor’s irritation. Zambreno’s second novel, “Green Girl,” a brooding, Ackeresque bildungsroman, was originally published in 2011, a year before Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” and the deluge of “girl” novels that came after it. The exchange is one of many moments in which our heroine is disrespected. “How many books have you written again?” a male acquaintance asks later. (“Drifts” is Zambreno’s seventh.) “I can tell he doesn’t believe me,” she says.

Like many of the writers she resembles or reveres — Jean Rhys and Robert Walser, to name an odd pair — Zambreno draws on autobiography but never leans on it. Her narrators are prone to quoting Barthes or Sontag or deconstructing art-house cinema, but her sentences are always airy and streamlined, full of wit and candor.

The narrator in “Drifts” is trying to write a book called “Drifts,” a detail that sounds more gimmicky than it is, but she’s finding it difficult to focus. She listens for the “psychotic burst of the mail slot,” or self-googles, or checks her “inbox like an oracle, to remind myself that I still exist.”

[ Read an excerpt from “Drifts.” ]

“‘Drifts’ is my fantasy of a memoir about nothing,” the narrator says. “I desire to be drained of the personal. To not give myself away.” (I’m still unsure whether she gives herself away when she confesses, “I masturbate throughout the day, so much that I pull a muscle in my writing hand, which makes me feel like Robert Walser.”) Away from home, she goes on aimless walks, photographs trees, feeds stray cats and attends yoga in spite of the teacher’s vacant epiphanies. Occasionally she commutes through “the paranoiac and vulnerable psychic energy” of Manhattan to perform her masochistic adjunct employment.

Mortaring these scenes together are descriptions of Rilke’s struggle to write his only novel. Like our narrator, he’s unsure how to remain in a mist of dreamy attention and in the fire of productivity. Frustrated with how domestic life impedes his work, “he wishes to withdraw more deeply into himself, into the monastery inside him, replete with great bells. He would like to forget everyone, forget his wife and his child.”

The narrator and her husband also want a monastic existence, “to be guardians of each other’s solitude, like the Rilkes. Yet they, too, were always so worried about money. It didn’t work out for them.” Few writers could get away with invoking Rilke every 20 pages, but Zambreno does, in part because she holds his life up as both instruction and warning.

“Drifts,” like much of Zambreno’s work, mourns the great writers of the past and yawns at a publishing culture in which “a prominent writer of so-called autofiction, with a half-million-dollar advance on his last book, wins the so-called genius grant.” The narrator questions whether it’s possible for this author or anyone else “to write a self in the time you were the self you wrote about.” Is it possible for an artist to converse with contemporary culture without being eroded by its banality? She answers by not answering, by returning to Rilke, or contemplating Peter Hujar, Clarice Lispector, Barbara Loden — geniuses long gone.

Two-thirds into “Drifts” the narrator realizes she is pregnant, and as she beholds her “exquisitely tender and changing body” her diction stoops slightly into the hackneyed. “How time moves this summer, so slowly and quickly,” she observes, “how my growing body keeps measure.”

I enjoy and admire Zambreno’s work so much that I resisted accepting that there is a flaw in this book: The structure of the narrative suggests that childbirth is the answer to every question she’s been asking, a necessary redemption from her existential woes. In the final seven pages of the book, as she holds her “babbling and cooing creature,” the wide-eyed narrator is “grateful” that her “major affect is only intense exhaustion from night feedings.”

Gazing at a print of “Melencolia I” in her new office-nursery, she’s pleased to realize Dürer’s engraving is really about “her baby, their mess, the day.” I would have welcomed a portrait of the mother masturbating herself into a Walser-y stupor between diaper changes, but I’m a little baffled that a book suspicious of tidy narratives seems to conclude on the healing powers of childbearing. Still, other readers may be reassured by the suggestion: that an artist will always be dissatisfied with her output, but parents will be enraptured with theirs.

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