Screen Tests / Undying

This review was first published in the Fall 2019 issue of Rain Taxi Review of Books. Anne Boyer's The Undying went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. (I have kept the page references in my text that are provided for the Rain Taxi copyeditors, but which are cut from the printed version.) 

This review in many ways intersects with my later essays on Zambreno's Drifts and Jeff VanderMeer's Dead Astronauts, parts of something I've been thinking of as "the asterisks project". What will come of it, I don't know, but it is ongoing, in fits and starts (more fits than starts these days, but c'est la vie).

Screen Tests

Kate Zambreno

Harper Perennial ($16.99)

The Undying

Anne Boyer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($26.00)

reviewed by Matthew Cheney

In Screen Tests, a collection of prose pieces, Kate Zambreno says that she writes to “announce to myself, as well as to the drifts of former intimates that amass into one giant coronary heartbreak, that I am still alive.” [235] Here we have, then, writing done not just to stay alive, but to announce that death has not yet triumphed.

Ann Boyer’s fragmentary memoir of surviving breast cancer, The Undying, announces life right from the title, and throughout its pages shows at just what cost that life was won. In both these books, though, living and writing are not simple supports for each other. The transmutation of experience into language requires its own sacrifices and leaves its own scars. Boyer writes: “I hate to accept, but do, that cancer’s near-criminal singularity means any work about it always resembles testimony. It will be judged by its veracity or its utility or its depth of feeling but rarely by its form, which is its motor and its fury, which is a record of the motions of a struggle to know, if not the truth, then the weft of all competing lies.” [285]

Though The Undying is focused on one primary topic and Screen Tests ranges more widely, there are numerous similarities of form and reference, of motor and fury. A reader flipping through the books will notice one similarity immediately: Both books eschew conventional paragraph formatting for the style most common on the internet (and in this magazine), where blank space separates unindented paragraphs. In a book of hundreds of pages, this style makes each break feel slightly greater than a simple shift of paragraphs. It relieves any expectation of elegant transition and promotes instead a sense of gaps and parataxis. These are books of fragments, shards, shores, ruins; these are writers trying to set wastelands in order.

Zambreno is the more obvious formalist. The difference between the first section of Screen Tests, titled “Stories (2016-2018)”, and the second, titled “Essays (2012-2014),” is not a difference between fiction and nonfiction. The stories are shorter than the essays, most of them a single paragraph, but they read like mini-essays or diary entries. (While nothing in the texts suggests fictionality, it would be a mistake to conflate the “I” of the writings in Screen Test with the “I” that is Kate Zambreno the person, given how aware the narrator shows herself to be of writers and critics whose entire careers were based on complicating the relationship between writer, text, and reader.) Though page by page Screen Tests feels loose, even chatty, the book as a whole is a fugue of echoed themes, reiterated motifs, repeated references both large and small — a mention early in the book to having written “an essay about a fairly obscure American film made in the 1970s by an actress, the only film she directed, that she starred in herself” [71] seems to point to the final piece in the book, a long essay titled “One Can Be Dumb and Unhappy at Exactly the Same Time: On Failure, the Depressed Muse, and Barbara Loden’s Wanda.” Names pop up throughout the Screen Tests (Susan Sontag, Andy Warhol, Kathy Acker, Roland Barthes, John Wayne), becoming, in repetition, a reference to more than just themselves, but to what they’ve been on other pages herein.

Like Kate Zambreno, Anne Boyer offers a wealth of intertexts and citations throughout The Undying, many of them similar to those in Screen Tests. Indeed, both Boyer and Zambreno invoke Sontag and Acker repeatedly, though for different purposes. It is no surprise that someone as well-read in 20th century cultural production as Boyer would turn to Sontag and Acker during a cancer diagnosis, as both were sharp writers whose experiences of cancer not only changed (and, ultimately, ended) their lives, but inflected their writing.

Both Screen Tests and The Undying are books that yearn to be more than they can be. This is not a criticism; the impossibility of fulfilling that yearning is a topic within each. “I am certain,” Boyer says, “that my illness would make a better book if it were someone else’s.” [117] It’s an interesting phrase: the illness making the book instead of the (ill) writer making the book. One of the most powerful threads through The Undying is the story of how serious illness consumes every element of the sufferer’s life, and how social and political forces conspire with the illness to increase the suffering. “Who dies,” Boyer writes, “from the collection of diseases called ‘breast cancer’ is determined by income, education, gender, family status, access to health care, race, and age.” [189] Boyer’s experience of chemotherapy is not just physically ravaging, but is exacerbated by hospitals that treat patients like widgets on an assembly line, by the lack of social support for people without networks of family and friends who can drop everything to become caretakers, by utterly inadequate medical leave that forces her to show up and teach classes while still deeply ill or else face unemployment. Every American knows what unemployment means: loss of health insurance. Cancer is expensive even for the well-insured; without it, destitution looms.

“Everyone understands,” Boyer writes, “as a matter of fact that unless you are currently entered into this world’s customary romantic partnership, or unless you have lived long enough to raise devoted grown children, or unless you are young enough to still be in the care of your parents, you are, on the occasion of aggressive cancer in the conditions of aggressive profit, rarely considered worth enough to keep alive.” [150]

Worth enough to keep alive. Here we have another link between these two books, because for all their differences of subject matter, they return us, the readers, to questions of what (and how) we value each other, especially when our bodies fail, our work fails, our writing fails, our lives fail. A good society, Boyer suggests, would provide systems of support for people who have failed at partnership or any of the other socially-promoted means of safety-netting your life in late capitalism, where the safety nets are threadbare and close to the ground even in the best circumstances.

In this world of pain and profit, a world that “privatizes survival,” [130] an elegant narrative with linear plot points and subtle transitions from epiphany to epiphany would be obscene. We are forced into fragments by a society that shatters its citizens. “This is an account of pain made of notes and starts: ephemeral sensation’s monument of an ephemeralist’s half-literature,” Boyer writes as The Undying grows more and more fragmentary, trying to capture experiences and sensations that can’t be corralled into coherence or burnished into bumpersticker slogans. In the end, a survivor uncomfortable with the label of survivor, aware of the “great orbs of the unsaid” that “continue to float through the air,” she finishes the book because “it is time for a new problem.” [291]

Similarly, Zambreno arranges the pieces of Screen Test to finish with something like an exhaustion of self and subject. “Writers block. How boring. I am supposed to be working on an essay, this essay in fact, but something stalls me. I cannot enter into it. I am unsure what is the use of all of this first person anymore.” [264] The I and what it relates to is a key theme throughout the book. The numerous references throughout to writers, artists, filmmakers, and celebrities are rarely made to speak only of those people; the narrator usually uses them to think about herself, to see where she can see her own reflection in the funhouse mirror of culture, to see, in fact, if she can live in the funhouse. The sense of failure she presents reveals that there is no enough that will create a sense of success, and the exhaustion the book reaches by the end is prefigured by an abyss of longing throughout. 

Zambreno’s narrator screens and tests applicants, figures she seems to hope will make her know and love herself. She cannot see the evidence of something like success that fills the book: publications, public readings, invitations to events. She worries about her appearance at the same time as she obsesses over “a (lukewarm) review in the London Review of Books” of her novel [205]. She proposes that Kathy Acker could never be published by a commercial press now because commercial publishers only want reader-friendly stories with continuous characters and coherent narratives, implying that any failures of her own writing are a matter of bad timing, of not having been able to be a writer when Kathy Acker was — all of this written in a book published by a large commercial press, which suggests that either the narrator, who clearly sees some of her own aspirations in Acker’s art, is wrong about what is publishable … or is writing a more accessible, reader-friendly book than Acker did. Her diagnosis of contemporary publishing seems accurate to me, so I expect it is the latter. Indeed, Screen Tests is far less confrontational, far more coherent and conventionally “readable” than most of Acker’s writing, which suggests that among the narrator’s failures, by her own standards, is a failure to be as aesthetically daring as Acker was. Within such a scheme of value, to be published by a major publisher is itself a sign of failure.

In a story titled “And I” (subtitled “after Borges”, invoking his “Borges and I”), Zambreno’s narrator muses on being a character in a friend’s story, but thinks the “I” in that story was more the “I” a reader gets from reading her books, an “I” that shares certain interests and obsessions with her more personal self, but which “is interested in all of these things in a showy, off-putting way, as if to announce her interests to the world.” [42] That certainly describes some of the pieces in Screen Tests, and one way of reading the book is to see it as the scraps and leavings of the narrator’s effort to open the “author-I” and to see more than just herself in the “I” of another. The pieces that comprise Screen Tests makes for quick, light reading for anyone who shares some of Zambreno’s interests; the book as a whole is much more than that, a moving portrait of attempts to escape, or perhaps reconcile with, a cage of self-regard in which the self is always coming up short even as it demands constant attention.

The struggle throughout the fragments of Screen Tests and The Undying is similar, then: the struggle not just to be alive when all the forces of the world seem to have no value for your life, but to find fulfillment; the struggle not just to announce life through writing, but to find worth in surviving, and to see over the horizon of the self to new problems, which suggest new failures — but also the possibility of new success.

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