Sept/Oct/Nov 2012

The Lost Girls

A literary memoir conjures modernism's forgotten women

Jessica Winter


Click to enlarge

Kate Zambreno.

“I am beginning to realize that taking the self out of our essays is a form of repression,” Kate Zambreno writes in Heroines. “Taking the self out feels like obeying a gag order—pretending an objectivity where there is nothing objective about the experience of confronting and engaging with and swooning over literature.”

To defy that gag order, presumably in place and unchallenged at least since the dawn of the New Criticism, Zambreno has written Heroines, a blend of memoir, literary criticism, and manifesto. The book is an outgrowth of her blog Frances Farmer Is My Sister, named for the actress whose career collapsed in the early 1940s as a result of her alcoholism and erratic behavior. Zambreno claims many more of the marginalized, cast-off, or otherwise fallen women of twentieth-century Anglophone culture as her sisters, including Jean Rhys and Sylvia Plath (Zambreno’s 2011 novel, Green Girl, paid direct homage to Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight and Plath’s The Bell Jar). But she is especially attuned to the “mad wives,” as she calls them, the muses and amanuenses of treacherous visionaries, “these women often marginalized in the modernist memory project”: Zelda Fitzgerald, Viv Eliot, Jane Bowles, the spouses of celebrated authors F. Scott, T. S., and Paul, respectively.

In Zambreno’s telling, any of these women might be her twin sister, her mirror image, and in Heroines, her first book of nonfiction, she toggles back and forth between her life and theirs to explain why. Zambreno marries an academic whom she portrays as enormously supportive and patient. But nonetheless their marriage inducts her into a “union of forgotten or erased wives,” she writes. She suffers from endometriosis and excruciating periods, imagining herself “a reincarnation of Vivien(ne) Eliot,” who endured similar bodily betrayals. Feeling lonely and blocked in her apartment in Akron, Ohio, she writes, “It is not lost on me the similarities in my current situation to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” a somewhat autobiographical tale published in 1892 about a woman who is labeled “hysterical,” imprisoned in a bedroom, and forbidden to write. Of Zelda Fitzgerald—who was discouraged from writing, painting, dancing, or any creative pursuit whatsoever by her doctors, who subjected her to horse-serum injections and electroshock; whose manuscript of Save Me the Waltz was bowdlerized by her husband and her physician; who died at age forty-seven, locked in a room as the Highland Mental Hospital went up in flames—Zambreno muses, “I wonder if a reason I feel such a communion with Zelda is because her career mirrors mine as a small-press writer.”

And so on. No, Zambreno is not objective. She is beyond subjective. And she is not kidding. She is a time traveler, embedded so deeply in the texts and biographies of another century’s martyr-heroines that their struggles and disenfranchisement become her own, or rather, hers become theirs. She can identify; she can relate. Writing novels and blog posts in her living room in Akron or Chicago, she understands exactly what they were going through.

Undoubtedly, Zambreno’s overarching wishes are honorable. She wants to acknowledge the debt of labor and inspiration that the great modernists never paid to their wives and lovers. She wants to continue reshaping the canon to reflect the contributions of women, whether they were bylined or not. She wants to mourn the loss of Sylvia Plath’s journals and the suppression of Viv Eliot’s, to commemorate all the writing, painting, and dancing that Zelda Fitzgerald didn’t get to do. (“Often I think not of the works that have been written, but those that never were.”) She wants to know, rightly so, why the trappings of genius or eccentricity in men are so often refracted as insanity in women. (“She was institutionalized, as Mad Woman, as Bad Wife,” Zambreno writes of her archetypal heroine, “and he was institutionalized, as the Great American Author.”) Her chosen field is crowded and diverse: A core list of background material could range from Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s critical work The Madwoman in the Attic to Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Wife to Joyce Johnson’s Beat memoir Minor Characters to John Cassavetes’s film A Woman Under the Influence. But there is room for more, for experimentation and hybridization. Just as Sheila Heti’s much-discussed How Should a Person Be? is a “novel from life,” so Heroines aspires to be criticism from life—the lives of the author and her wife-sisters. In blending criticism and memoir, Zambreno again has excellent, albeit unacknowledged, company, including Janet Malcolm in Reading Chekhov, Wayne Koestenbaum in The Queen’s Throat, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Tendencies, Susan Howe in My Emily Dickinson, Alison Bechdel in Fun Home, and many others who likewise don’t make the cut in Heroines’ bibliography.

The lives of the wives provide Zambreno with plenty of literary gossip to savor. Some of the most diverting passages of Heroines read like a parallel-universe Us Weekly in which the roles of Kristen and Rob are played by Zelda and Scott. And if it’s unlikely that Zambreno has repressed the self, or even the id, in this book—“My mode of reading is masturbatory,” she discloses early on; “sometimes I feel guilty about my lubed fingers all over library books”—at times she may have repressed her wit. Asking what T. S. Eliot would have chosen as the objective correlative for Viv’s menstrual blood is the best one-liner on Old Possum I’ve ever heard, and I wanted more like it.

Whether objectively correlated or not, Viv Eliot’s menstrual agonies are a contemporary ailment. They are explicitly shared by the author, and they may implicitly resonate with any American reader during a year in which some of the most contentious political debate has centered on the legal, moral, and economic repercussions of provisions for women’s reproductive health. But Heroines is contemporary only insofar as it itemizes events in Zambreno’s day-to-day life: the marital spats, the yoga classes, the online shopping for vintage Herman Miller chairs. (“Oh Christ, I’ve become one of those essayists awash in their own privilege, yet I feel in many ways far far away from Joan Didion in her Malibu mansion.”) Heroines takes Elizabeth Hardwick to task for not identifying a political component in the many medical and marital crimes committed against Zelda Fitzgerald, but it never opens a newspaper. Zambreno complains that “we are weighed down in society by the expectation of capital, an advance or salary proves our worth and value,” without pausing to consider that most of us veterans of the Great Recession are actually weighed down by the expectation of paying the damn rent. (“It’s nice to be liked / But it’s better by far to get paid,” as noted feminist Liz Phair put it in her treatise on late capitalism, “Shitloads of Money.”)

Most curiously, Heroines mounts an operatic defense of “confessional” art against unknown attackers. “Why is self-expression, the relentless self-portrait, not a potentially legitimate form of art?” she asks. The ready answer might be provided by any number of acclaimed memoirs by women in recent years. Or by one of the best and most critically acclaimed pop albums of 2012, Fiona Apple’s astonishing—and astonishingly confessional—The Idler Wheel . . . . Or by one of our era’s best and most critically acclaimed television shows, Lena Dunham’s equally brilliant Girls, a highly autobiographical work that, like The Idler Wheel . . . , evinces no conflict between raw, messy lived experience and the highest levels of artistry and craftsmanship. Zambreno does sense a conflict there, which may be why Heroines contains sentences like this one: “Sometimes it seems impossible to be real friends with other women writers, we are all such trainwrecks, messes, it seems, but sometimes it seems impossible to be real friends with other women who do not identify primarily as writers.”

Perhaps asking a writer to self-edit is another form of repression. Perhaps being friends with women is a form of repression, too. In its attempt to advocate by example for a rough-hewn, let-it-all-hang-out, comma-splices-be-damned form of feminist literary criticism, Heroines inadvertently celebrates the romance of impossibility: a learned helplessness, a sloppy withdrawal in disgust, a self-handicapping justified by precognition of rampant misogyny. At times, Zambreno’s obsession with the tragedies of the Zeldas and Sylvias can almost scan as envy for the roiling theatrics of their short lives, an implosive dramaturgy she can’t aspire to in her sometimes volatile but mostly happy domestic setup. She drops out of a graduate seminar midsemester because her professor is too besotted with canonized white male authors and “it just seems there is too much to defend against.” When she runs into an old flame she declines to name (repression!) but who appears to be Adam Levin, author of the well-received, thousand-page novel The Instructions, Zambreno all but ululates her dismay: “He would be viewed as the artist. I, the scribbling sister. I will be called solipsistic. But a thousand-page first-person narrative is not solipsistic?” (In this case, precognition of rampant misogyny is paired with a refusal to discern between a memoir and a novel narrated by a fictional character.)

This passage, and too much of Heroines, reads like a misogynist’s broad parody of a feminist artist: slapping at shadows, barking comebacks at scarecrows, all five senses perpetually primed for affront. Living in London at the time of the 7/7 terrorist bombings, Zambreno recalls “feeling panicked against the stoic Englishness around us, a badge of pride since the Blitz and the IRA, a sort of emotional imperialism that Viv also experienced.” This sentence doesn’t track, but the implication is that she, Kate Zambreno, has been unjustly subordinated to and perhaps exploited by the British temperament, which has imperially stifled her own “freaked out” feelings about that horrible day. In a single sentence, Zambreno makes an accidental case for writers attempting, like fusty old Tom Eliot, to transcend the self. What she calls “pretending an objectivity” might also be thought of simply as imagination—or, to employ a typically gendered concept, empathy.

Jessica Winter is a senior editor at Time magazine.

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