Kate Zambreno's new book, Drifts: A Novel, was written before the novel coronavirus upended the world and forced us all into more limited lives. But it is a book that feels of this time. Not of this time in subject matter, though its questions about how we make meaning and art and life are certainly heightened now. Rather, the book feels of this time in its structure, in its commitment to shards and fragments.
(Now, as a Nobel laureate once said, everything is broken.)
Zambreno has made something of a career of fragmentation. A glance at her books might suggest monotonous similarity, all those unindented paragraphs separated by blank space. There are similarities, too, across the characters and voices. But each book is quite distinct. Each has a different focus, and they often have a different emotional core, a different sense of the problems or questions that inspired them. Like Jean Rhys, a writer clearly important to her, Zambreno writes books that often feel diaristic, memoiristic, autobiographical. But also like Rhys, the diaristic/memoiristic/autobiographical elements manifest differently from book to book, and show a particular distinction between the books that have been called novels.
Though I know truly nothing about Zambreno's actual life, it feels both weird and thrilling to think of Drifts as a novel, because here it feels like the distinction between life and fiction has broken down. (Emphasis on feels like. It could be a magic trick!) Her previous books labeled as novels, Green Girl and O Fallen Angel, were written in the third-person and, though digressive and fragmentary, offer something like a narrative experience. Drifts is different, much closer to her more-apparently-nonfictional works Heroines, Book of Mutter, Appendix Project, and Screen Tests. Its blocks of text build a voice rather than a story (in any conventional sense), and yet the book has qualities that honestly earn the blurb cliché compulsively readable.
Part of that compulsion comes from one great attraction of the New Narrative and autofiction: it feels like reading somebody's diary or letters, or eavesdropping on their prayers and confessions. Christian Lorentzen's 2018 description of autofiction fits Zambreno's recent work well: books where "the artifice is in service of creating the sensation that there’s no artifice, which is the whole point", and where "there tends to be emphasis on the narrator’s or protagonist’s or authorial alter ego’s status as a writer or artist" so that "the book’s creation is inscribed in the book itself".
I have the sense that since March I have read very little fiction, and yet when I list for myself what I have read, it seems only a bit below my normal rate of reading when I'm not reading for a specific project: Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith, The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By by Georges Simenon, plus numerous short stories, mostly by dead writers, because I'm thinking of writing something about writers whose short fiction has been underappreciated, particularly Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose stories are neglected miracles.
As is typical of my reading habits, I've read nonfiction more promiscuously, bouncing around from book to book, rarely settling for long, though I have been captivated by John Stubbs' recent biography of Jonathan Swift, which I'm still making my way through faithfully while now and then jaunting off for a dalliance with an old friend, John Brewer's The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the 18th Century.
Fiction by dead writers, nonfiction about the eighteenth century ... there is a pattern to this reading, a pattern of wanting to escape the now.
One of the attractions of Zambreno's work for me is that she and I have read a lot of the same books and writers, seen a lot of the same movies and art, and we have a few similar obsessions and doubts, but her experiences are quite different from my own. This is a recipe to be fascinated by a writer: familiar psychic machinery mapping unfamiliar experiences. (In the second half of Drifts, that experience is of pregnancy and childbirth.) I am skeptical of the egomaniacal, adolescent desire for books to be "relatable", but I also know the thrill of finding familiar paths in the woods.
Again and again, Zambreno's writer characters consider themselves failures, despite what are, to me, the marks of success: books from prestigious publishers, public readings, even the occasional fan. I am familiar with the world of writing and publishing, familiar with the desire for an audience, for the ego-gratification of the byline. I, too, have been grumbly about how elusive success is, so thin and fleeting even when achieved, so seldom achieved. I am also fascinated by writers who disappear into obscurity, writers who stop writing, writers who barely wrote, who were tormented by writing, who refused to write. (Zambreno cites Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Villa-Matas, a personal favorite of my own.) I have been tempted to annihilate my byline, even renounce the act of writing. I fail to do so, but can't deny the pleasure of the thought.
There's an irony to a book full of complaints about failure succeeding at being published by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Random House, one of the largest publishers in the world, an irony to that book getting reviewed and excerpted in the New York Times and other major venues. And yet, there is also no irony about it at all. Because while these are signs of a certain kind of success — a success denied most of us — they aren't the sorts of success that are likely to heal your life.
Zambreno knows this. In Heroines (p. 231, if you're curious), she writes of
the strange alienation and invisibility of a small-press writer, where you are a name in a very small world, yet elsewhere you are absolutely nobody. And there is still this sense in our culture of writing as connected to fame, and that when one does make it big, get the BIG BOOK, the agent, the press, the publicity, blah blah, that it is deserved. That if one is really good enough — one will get discovered. Whatever that means.
Two pages later:
There's such a masochism to publishing — we are begging to be loved, to be seen, to be recognized, to be heard. Some of us take rejections of our writing as rejections of our selves. And perhaps we are setting ourselves up, we as women are bred to look for self-identification from the outside world. We are supposed to aim for that sticker of approval. Yet now some of us externalize our rejections by blogging about them, about how it makes us feel, the viscera and volitility of our emotions.
Often, I want to abandon writing because of its egotism, the way it is impossible not to be self-centered when writing the sorts of things (essays, fiction) that I write. I envy my grandfather, a journalist. He spent his life writing about other people, putting his passion for words at the service of his community. I have far too many social neuroses to be a journalist. And so I am stuck with myself, my viscera, my volatility.
I am undone by the paradox that writing is, for me, both a parade of personal pronouns and an escape from self into ideas, images, language, connections, and other selves. I embrace the contemporary conventions that foreground subjectivity in writing, an eschewing of transcendental statements unmoored from time and place, the sorts of statements made not by a person but by one ("one might think...") or, worse, some disembodied godlike narration. And yet I groan over each I I write.
Where to find a balance point between the lie of impersonality and the narcissism of the personal?
Is this the attraction of referring to other texts? Though my text cannot escape my subjectivity, it does not need to be limited to my subjectivity. Hence citation. Hence collage.
(Or is that citation and collage a laziness? Why not put forth the effort to build links, to offer one's own words?)
(Or is that citation and collage a dodge, a hedge against criticism? Those are not my thoughts, those are the thoughts of another byline. I simply report.)
(No report is simple.)
Anne Carson begins my favorite of her books, Autobiography of Red: "He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet."
In "The Aesthetics of Silence", Susan Sontag wrote that "The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence."
After a performance of his song "Alma", Tom Lehrer said, "One problem that recurs more and more frequently these days, in books and plays and movies, is the inability of people to communicate with the people they love. Husbands and wives who can’t communicate, children who can’t communicate with their parents, and so on. And the characters in these books and plays and so on (and in real life, I might add) spend hours bemoaning the fact that they can’t communicate. I feel that if a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up."
When I am tempted into silence, I sometimes overcome it by asking, "Who are you to shut yourself up? You are not important enough for your silence to matter!"
In addition to the fiction by dead writers, I've been reading, off and on, Resentment by Gary Indiana, a book about Los Angeles in the 1990s. I've read a lot of Indiana's work, but never got around to this novel. In a just world, Gary Indiana would be celebrated as one of the greatest American writers. The dust jacket of the old hardcover of Resentment that I'm reading has a blurb on the inside front flap from James Purdy, who calls the book "Wonderful high jinks!", a strangely arch statement, even antiquated, and while in many ways accurate (the book is often wonderful, there are encounters and events that count as "high jinks"), it also feels like an odd, off-kilter view of the book, and thus appropriate for Purdy, whose odd, off-kilter view of the universe infused his strange writings with wonder. In a just world, James Purdy would be celebrated as one of the greatest American writers.
From "On Poetry: A Rhapsody" by Jonathan Swift:
Poor starv'ling bard, how small thy gains!How unproportion'd to thy pains!And here a simile comes pat in:Though chickens take a month to fatten,The guests in less than half an hourWill more than half a score devour.So, after toiling twenty daysTo earn a stock of pence and praise,Thy labours, grown the critic's prey,Are swallow'd o'er a dish of tea;Gone to be never heard of more,Gone where the chickens went before.
I will not blog about my rejections. Nor will I blog about my ghostings, which are as common these days: Publications to which you send work, and they just ... never respond. Now, a form email feels almost personal. Certainly more personal than my most recent rejection: A notice of a changed status in the submission management system from in process to declined.
In May, the Pulitzers were announced, and I was pleased and surprised to see Anne Boyer win in the category of General Nonfiction for her book The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care. Until The Undying, Boyer's work was all published by small presses, passed by word of mouth from one besmitten enthusiast to another. (I was one of them.) The Undying, though, got published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, one of the most prestigious of publishers, a division of Macmillan, owned by the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. Though not a long book, The Undying is undeniably a BIG BOOK.
I reviewed The Undying for Rain Taxi's Fall 2019 issue alongside Kate Zambreno's Screen Tests. I don't do a lot of book reviewing anymore, but I had wanted to read both books, and needed to do that reading last summer rather than during what I knew would be a very busy fall, so I decided to pitch reviews and request advance copies. I had expected to review them separately, but there were numerous overlaps in both style and subject matter, so a joint review made sense, and I admired both books, so it was a pleasure to write about them together.
I archive my Rain Taxi print reviews here at The Mumpsimus, but we writers for RT agree not to reprint our work until at least one year after it is published. When The Undying won the Pulitzer, I asked Rain Taxi if I could reprint my review here on The Mumpsimus a few months early, since I think it's a pretty good review, and it might bring some attention to RT in the wake of the Pulitzer announcement, given how many people were likely to be searching for reviews of and information about Anne Boyer. Rain Taxi said no, they hoped people would instead buy the issue to read the review. I thought this was silly (who goes through the rigmarole and expense of buying a back issue of a magazine to read one review that they might or might not be interested in?), but I knew the deal when I agreed to write the review, so I could hardly complain, though I was disappointed that the review couldn't appear here until this fall's issue of RT is released. [Update: It has been released, so here is the review.]
The rejection of my request reminded me of one of the frustrations of publishing: loss of control of the written work. When you're not being paid well (or at all), the only thing you have is your control of your words. Larger publishers can afford to remunerate the loss of control with money, distribution, prestige. Small publishers, less so.
(What, though, does "control of your words" mean? What is control? What are my words?)
For years — decades — I have told myself that I will give up an amount of control that feels commensurate with the amount of remuneration. I have, thus, occasionally agreed to some extreme loss of control when I was being paid well, and I would do so again, though my non-career is not of a type that tends to bring many such offers. We give up some control of our words to publishers, even small publishers, even publishers that pay little or nothing, because of the sense of fulfillment that comes from someone else's approval. I have control of my words here at this blog, and can blather on endlessly (as you've noticed), but any approval or disapproval will come later, if it comes at all. I continue to write for Rain Taxi, and have my work sequestered in its pages, because the editing is excellent and makes me look like a better writer than I am on my own. (Working with an editor, too, means ceding some control.)
The ultimate control of my words would be the freedom to make them go away. To erase my textual self. I could, in some ways, do this. For instance, I could obliterate this blog, which contains 17 years of writing, most of it nothing I'd like to have remembered. But intrepid readers, if there were any, could search the Wayback Machine. And though there are probably ways to really erase all that, there are no ways to erase the various books I've published or been published in, even if it sometimes (often?) feels like those books are invisible.
At heart, I'm just lazy. I could erase most of my writing if I really wanted to do so, especially if I vowed never to write again. The memory of the reading public is short and seems always to be getting shorter. Many (most?) writers who were well known in their time are forgotten in ours.
In Drifts, Kate Zambreno describes finding two Post-It notes that she (the narrator) must have written and forgotten, notes which say:
Urgent need to communicateUrgent need to disappear (withdraw)
Of Georges Simenon, Joan Acocella wrote that at the end of his life, after having made a fortune and published an uncountable number of books, he "expressed utter indifference to the books he had written: 'So many hours, so many pages. Why?'"
Before that sense of futility hit him, he "thought that he deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature, and, in interviews, where he was always incautious, he predicted that he would. On the day when it was announced that Camus had won the prize, Simenon got drunk and hit his wife."
As the winter snow melted and we all tried our best to keep the virus away from each other, I thought that I might now finally read all of Beckett's famous novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable. I have read around in each book for many years, but never read them fully, never read them page by page, one after the other in order. I would still like to do this, but I have been reading other things, and watching a lot of TV shows about murder being something that can be solved by flawed but fundamentally good people.
In Drifts (pp.75-76), Kate Zambreno writes:
At the end of September, a prominent writer of so-called autofiction, with a half-million-dollar advance on his last book, wins the so-called genius grant. All day, friends contact me to complain. This writer's name had become synonymous for the type of first-person narrative we also wrote, and yet no one found our struggles worthy of reward. Why do these prizes and awards only seem to breed more prizes and awards? Yes, something about breeding, something I didn't quite grasp. Maybe our work was too much about acknowledging failure, about doubt. But our was a community of doubt. We saw something beautiful and comradely in our doubt. Maybe prize committees prize confidence, the ooze of it. I wanted to know, how did this writer have the confidence to write his novel seemingly in real time, over a year? When we take years just thinking and taking notes? This was a philosophical concern for me, as well as a complaint. The problem with the work I was writing was one of time. The present tense was a problem for me. And yet I wanted my novel, if that's what it was, to be about time and the problem of time. Amina writes me, about the novel she is attempting to write, the desire to write both the full and the fleeting sensations. How to capture that? The problem with dailiness — how to write the day when it escapes us. It was the problem at the center of the work I was trying to write, although I was unsure whether I was really trying to write it. Never have I felt more emptied of the possibility of writing but more full of it at the same time. When did I realize I was suffering not from writer's block but from refusal?
Who among us is so pure as to deny having felt similar feelings? I haven't read anything by Ben Lerner, the prize-winning poster boy for autofiction, and was thus unaware of his financial success, which a Guardian profile says is mentioned right at the beginning of his second novel, 10:04, which "opens with the narrator and his agent celebrating the 'strong six figure' advance he’s received for the novel you’re reading." That same profile also notes that he "has received a Guggenheim and a MacArthur 'genius' grant, and has been named in the New York Times as the most talented writer of his generation." Maggie Nelson, herself a MacArthur "genius", reviewed 10:04 for the Los Angeles Review of Books and called it "a near-perfect piece of literature". Genius recognizes genius. (At least I've read part of one Maggie Nelson book. It was okay, but I didn't find it compelling.)
The segment I've quoted above from Drifts fascinates me because of the discontinuity between some of its ideas. Originally, I was not going to quote the whole thing here. (You probably didn't read the whole thing, anyway, at least if you're like me. Usually, I skim and often skip block quotes.) I planned to cut the sentences about breeding and the sentences about time. I thought I was trying to make a point about envy, about the inadequacy of literary fame, about how I'd rather read the doubt-plagued writing of a Zambreno over the never-seems-to-have-met-anything-other-than-success writing of someone like Lerner. But while that is certainly the surface that attracted me to this piece of prose, I can't help but now be more interested in why this prose is not more orderly, why it, in fact, drifts. The drifting gets in the way of my desires. I want a paragraph exploring envy and fame, a paragraph exploring the value of doubt against the attraction of confidence, and bits of that are there (and certainly elsewhere in the book), but then there's also breeding and time and then the rather undeveloped idea of refusal of writing. Breeding is a powerful idea, especially in a book that soon literally gets taken over by the topic of breeding, as is time (also in a book that clearly seeks to capture fleeting sensations), and the book itself stands as a testament against the refusal to write. And who, I want to ask, is Kate Zambreno to write about the refusal to write when she has published, what, 7 books in 11 years? Some with major publishers? Often reviewed in major publications? About whom Lidia Yuknavitch said in the introduction to the reissued (from Harper Perennial) edition of O Fallen Angel, "Not even Stein, or Woolf, or Acker ever risked so much on the page."
What to my eyes is Zambreno's success — because it is greater than my own — does not matter to her narrator, because that narrator can only see the failures that cling to the success: the books do not sell as well as one might hope, the reviews are not as many nor as positive as for other writers, the money is minimal. Success is always contextual, and there's always somebody somehow more successful than you. There is a sense in which the whole idea of success is an abyss. Consider Stephen King, by many measures one of the most successful writers in the history of human civilization, and yet he has long complained about not being taken seriously. Consider Georges Simenon, owner of mansions and sports cars, who got so angry that Camus won the Nobel (instead of, presumably, himself) that he hit his wife.
(Where do success and a sense of entitlement meet? Simenon seemed to have so much sense of entitlement to literary fame and prestige that he turned the energy of that sense of entitlement into violence against a woman when his entitlement felt wounded.)
Why do we feel that we deserve any success, never mind fame and fortune?
While I am clearly less successful than Zambreno as a writer, I am more successful it seems (so far) than she has been at landing a full-time job in academia. Through something of a fluke of circumstances, I landed on the tenure track, something I had pretty much given up hope of ever achieving. Because of that, and because of some smart/lucky real estate investments by my paternal grandfather, and because of how low-to-nonexistent inheritance taxes are in the U.S., I have a financial security that many struggling writers and academics do not. (I am not, though, Ben Lerner, with his six-figure book deals and Ivy League position. Far from it!) Most of my success is not something I earned but something I fell into. Certainly, my academic work prepared me to be able to accept and carry out the job I have, but there are plenty of other people in the world qualified for such work, and many people who excel far beyond myself at individual parts of that work. The fluke for me was that the job I got required a set of both knowledge and experience that I picked up over the years ... and then I was in the right place at the right time. Even more of a fluke was the inheritance of land that I could then sell for a good chunk of money that I could then use to renovate the house that I also inherited, making it into a good place to live. Inheritance has zilch to do with merit or effort or anything other than the luck of birth. A reasonable society would tax it heavily. We do not live in a reasonable society. A truly generous person would give it all away, that unearned wealth. Though I gave, and continue to give, a lot away, I am not so generous as to deny myself a liveable house and something of a financial safety net. That I have a choice of that is a sign of significant success — success I did little to earn.
I write this not only during a global pandemic but also during a time when the United States is, once again, having to reckon with its racist history and with the ongoing racist violence of police.
Against the fact of this persisting violence, I retreat from language. Words are too easy. Words provide too much cover.
As I read, I noted many passages of interest in the first half of Drifts, but in the second half, which is more concerned with breeding, I made none. This does not mean the book became less compelling; if anything, it grew more so, as Zambreno's narrator chronicles an experience utterly alien to me: pregnancy. I do not seek out such chronicles, having no interest in procreation, but whenever I encounter them I am reminded of just how much mothers suffer and sacrifice, how much our lives cost them. Perhaps this is the source of my anger when people die young, when people are murdered. Though I have no feeling that life is itself miraculous or wonderful, I am aghast and aggrieved at early or murderous death because it unnecessarily ends a life a mother suffered and sacrificed for. A year and a half after my own mother's death, I still struggle to honor her suffering and sacrifice, still feel inadequate to it.
I look back at the post I wrote here shortly after a man whose name I do not want to utter murdered Trayvon Martin. I remember thinking then that the accumulated despair of all the Black lives lost must now do something, change something — that lives must now be saved, because this national — indeed, international — shock must have cut through the petrified skin of American anti-blackness, and now, after this, it couldn't possibly continue, it couldn't get worse, could it? I was no doe-eyed idealist; my sense of the politics of racial violence had been formed when I was a teenager seeking out everything I could find about Rodney King, because nothing I saw on the news every night made any sense, and I had no words for the rage I felt when the police who beat him were acquitted, and I was shocked by my own sympathy with the riots in Los Angeles afterward, a sympathy I could not explain, living, as I did, in one of the whitest states in the country, a place where many of the people I knew, including members of my family, thought Rodney King had gotten what he deserved and the officers who beat him ought to be celebrated as heroes. (I remember feeling then what I have so often felt since: I could not argue with these beliefs, because there was no argument there — all I could do was scream wordless screams.)
I remember thinking in the summer of 1992 that for all the suffering by Rodney King and the people of Los Angeles, at least now something had been revealed, and now there would be changes, and nothing like this would ever happen again in my lifetime.
At just about the mid-point of Drifts, Kate Zembreno's narrator says, "I have increasingly become Dürer's melancholic angel, moving notes around and around, formalizing or finishing nothing."
As the pandemic took its grip on the globe, as those of us whose bodies and movement were not deemed essential stayed in our homes, as the common emotions of the world settled into anxiety and depression, many people expressed an inability to focus on work, or an inability to focus on anything, a tendency to lose time to the most benign flickerings of the TV or the endless stream of social media, the only sociality many of us have had for months now. Reading Drifts, I sometimes caught myself thinking it had been written only a few days before I read it, and I would be shocked by the narrator's foolishness at going to a store or touching another person, and then I would remember that the book was written before the pandemic existed, and this realization would remind me that the conditions the pandemic has revealed are ones that lurked and lingered in the fabric of our lives before — that we were anxious before, depressed before, unable to focus before, unable to understand, before, what point there was to our compulsion to speak and write.
In Molloy, Beckett writes: "And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or any other thing. Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by heart and long forgotten, life without tears, as it is wept."
In an amusing negative review of a new biography of Andy Warhol, Gary Indiana writes: "The extreme tension in Warhol’s work between meaning and non-meaning has to do with random gestures, accidents, and visual noise carrying as much weight as design. Likewise, a lot that happened in Warhol’s life just sort of happened, the way lots of things happen in every life."
Most of Jonathan Swift's writings were first published anonymously or pseudonymously. John Stubbs notes that in "On Poetry: A Rhapsody", Swift recommends that new writers hang out in coffee shops and listen for talk of their work:
Be silent as a politician,For talking may beget suspicion;Or praise the judgment of the town,And help yourself to run it down.Give up your fond paternal pride,Nor argue on the weaker side:For, poems read without a nameWe justly praise, or justly blame;And critics have no partial views,Except they know whom they abuse:And since you ne'er provoke their spite,Depend upon't their judgment's right.But if you blab, you are undone:Consider what a risk you run:You lose your credit all at once;The town will mark you for a dunce;The vilest dogg'rel Grub Street sends,Will pass for yours with foes and friends;And you must bear the whole disgrace,Till some fresh blockhead takes your place.
Stubbs writes that the "advantages of anonymity were obvious as unsparing comments were let fly above the pots of coffee and chocolate. Swift would subsequently display great pride when one of his papers became the talk of the town, and mortification when the words of a dunce were mistaken as his. And when he stood back it was irksub to contemplate the sheer volume of material leaving rhe presses, to be sold off (or not) by booksellers or hawkers in the streets. It might be recalled that he had recorded the fate of such productions all too vividly in A Tale of a Tub, as their pages found their way to be wrapped around food, were used as lining or hung up in the lavatory."
A Tale of a Tub, one of Swift's earliest and greatest writings, is the only one of his major writings that he never publicly acknowledged, never reprinted in his collected works.
Though I like at least something in all of Kate Zambreno's books, my favorite remains Appendix Project: Talks and Essays. Mine is an odd, even perverse, sentiment, since Appendix Project is in many ways the least of her books — a book of stray pieces written in the year after Book of Mutter, when she wanted to have material for readings and events but didn't want to read from that book.
I first read Appendix Project shortly after my mother's death, so that explains a lot of why I cherish it: it is an item from a momentous moment in my life. But it is more than that, because the drama of Zambreno's struggle with the writing and publication of Book of Mutter becomes a kind of background energy to Appendix Project, as well as something of a narrative line, and leads to sharp insights.
Though the times are vastly different, it's hard not to think about the initial AIDS era while living through the current pandemic. I talk with queer male friends of my generation or older and those years always shadow our conversations. I have a good imagination, but I can't imagine who I would be if I had not come of age during those years. The essay that right now I am proudest of having written, the most personal I've ever published, was about that time. It was published at LitHub in 2016, and though they quite understandably gave it a more descriptive title than my own, I've always thought of it as titled "A Long Gay Book, A Life".
After that essay was published, I thought, "Okay. I don't need to write much more than that. It's all there, all the things I most want to convey to the world."
In Appendix Project, Kate Zambreno writes: "This I understand — how grief can be transformative, can catalyze a new writing process, the desire for new forms."
The final paragraph of Gary Indiana's review of the new Warhol biography begins: "This book could appear only at a time when the bohemian mobility, sexual freedom, and cultural ferment of New York in the Sixties, Seventies, and early Eighties are not simply being forgotten, as people who were there die off, but becoming unimaginable."
For a while, I thought I would start a new project: I would write a book about AIDS and gay novels, particularly the many books and writers that have now been forgotten.
I gathered hundreds of books. I began taking notes. And then I stopped. I wasn't sleeping much, I was becoming distracted, irritable, depressed, at random moments overcome with despair. I put the books into boxes. I hated myself for not being able to get farther with the project, but it was a project that only filled me with sadness and anger, because I was spending so much time with the words and dreams of people whose lives had been cut so short, and whose work was now so marginalized and forgotten. I wanted to convert my anger and sadness into a righteous energy that would restore a public memory of these writers, their words and lives, but I couldn't overcome a sense of futility, because I know from much experience that just because you publish something, or just because it gets briefly noticed, does not mean much at all. These writers would still be dead, and the world at large would still be indifferent.
In 2007, I wrote here about Christopher Priest's novel The Affirmation. A friend read it and immediately called me — she thought the post indicated suicidal thoughts. I was surprised, shocked. I remember coming to the end of that post and feeling something like glee. Yes, it was a mind-scorching novel, and I had read it at a time of personal upheaval, but writing about it had offered me nothing but pleasure. After reassuring my friend that I was okay, I went back to the post and tried to see it through her eyes.
In that post, I wrote:
Peter tells stories so that he may try to find himself, find some truth, remember something that was somehow lost, bring life to the dead past. He tries again and again. The something remains lost, the past stays dead.He does not know who he is. Nor do we. All we have are words.
And then I could understand what my friend saw, because there were all my conflicted feelings about writing and language laid bare. But my dreams of annihilating the byline, the writerly self, are very different from dreams of personal annihilation.
(I've had those dreams, especially in my late teens and early twenties — truly suicidal — but even in the now-long-ago world of 2007, I was better, had hopes for some future joys, plans for future life.)
Toward the end of Appendix Project, Kate Zambreno writes: "I'm realizing lately that writing for me is a form of resilience. That whenever I'm sad, or grieving, I need to write something to commemorate it, and try to turn it into something to think through, something hopefully profound. The vestigial remnants of my resilience, my existence."
I want to finish this post, which I've been working on for longer than I would ever admit in public. What I've written feels both dense and inadequate. This is the damned bind of now: To say anything is to say too much, to be silent is to be complicit with death. This is true certainly of the big political and social challenges that dog our days, but it unravels all my writing right now, regardless of topic.
The greatest gift of age is how it lets us let go of things we cared passionately about when we were young, things we worried over, things that tormented us. I have found clarity and contentment in simplicity, even as I constantly fail to bring the simplicity I seek to my writing and to my life. Nonetheless, despite all my failures, my muddling complexities, a clear simplicity seems now the only literary quest worth bothering with. Not fame, not even publication, just clarity, simplicity.
(I wish I were a poet. I feel condemned to, and by, prose.)
The quest is impossible, leading only to silence, and yet I am content with it.
And content to drift.
In the "Epistle Dedicatory" section of A Tale of a Tub, Swift writes: "Books, like Men their Authors, have no more than one Way of coming into the World, but there are ten Thousand to go out of it, and return no more."
When I was a teenager, I took a weekend workshop for high school writers at Middlebury College's Bread Loaf campus with the poet David Budbill. I liked him a lot, even though our approaches to writing were poles apart: He was a plainspoken poet, while I was more interested in avant-gardes, more drawn to prose and drama.
After David Budbill died in 2016, I picked up a copy of his posthumous collection Tumbling toward the End and was moved by the poems, now not merely plainspoken but pared down to a simplicity that encompasses some of the largest concerns of life. (It was no surprise to me to discover that in the last decades of his life he had openly embraced an interest in, and inspiration from, Eastern poetry.) Tumbling toward the End is a wise book, infused both with the knowledge and experience of long life and with the knowledge and wisdom learned from meditation on the words of writers who died long before our births. It's the sort of book that works best as a book rather than discrete poems — music and wisdom resonate across these poems, written in the last few years of Budbill's life, when disease made mortality clear and rendered ambition retrospective. This is a book that knows nothing is permanent except impermanence. There is no posterity. Live as you can while you can.
One section of Tumbling toward the End begins with a poem titled "I've Given Up My Dreams of Fame and Fortune". It tells of living simply and enjoying the tasks of that everyday simplicity:
I've given up my dreams of fame and fortune.
You can't have your cake
and eat it too.
Cut wood. Weed the beans. Make love.
Hill the potatoes.
Play a bamboo flute.
Listen for a poem.