Monster Love

Book of Mutter (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents) BY Kate Zambreno. Semiotext(e). Hardcover, 216 pages. $17.
O Fallen Angel BY Kate Zambreno. edited by Lidia Yuknavitch. Harper Perennial. Paperback, 224 pages. $14.

The cover of Book of Mutter (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents) The cover of O Fallen Angel

Kate Zambreno's first novel, O Fallen Angel, published in 2010 and just reissued by Harper Perennial, takes place somewhere between Middle America and hell, if hell, as Jean-Paul Sartre famously indicated in No Exit, is other people. There certainly seems to be no exit in O Fallen Angel, set in the suburban Midwest in a "Dreamhouse in the country far far away from all the scary city people alright let's just say it in a whisper the scary (black) people they keep on coming closer and closer we keep on moving farther and farther away." Mommy, an archetypal suffocating mother, stays inside and presides over this fearful shrine to conformist white Catholic domesticity. She is fixated on danger, on the crimes and sins of others, which frighten her and yet also lend her a strange, sentimental comfort, a thrill of superiority. Mommy names her dog after Laci Peterson, "that poor girl whose husband murdered her while she was pregnant with their poor unborn child." When she extends her sympathy to her own college-ageddaughter, Maggie, who has fled the family flock for the big bad city of Chicago, it involves fantasizing that Maggie will come home in a body bag. Mommy will be the star at the funeral, where everyone will understand that "IT IS NOT THE PARENTS' FAULT that Mommy and Daddy did all they could but their daughter was manic-depressive-bipolar-schizophrenic or something."

Meanwhile, black-clad, angst-ridden Maggie slips along a typical path of self-destruction. She pursues men who discard her, and seems ever ready to discard herself. She "doesn't want to actively die but she doesn't want to passively keep on living." The novel's action takes place during the Bush years, and yet it's almost as if right-wing family-values rhetoric has returned the US to the 1950s. Maggie's escape fantasies are as old-fashioned as her plight, and even in her imagined rebellions, she envisages living under someone else's control. She likes to daydream that Marlon Brando "will grow to love her in that way that he will tell her what to wear and who to see and put his fist through walls in jealous rages over her." This is a novel of caricatures, not characters—everyone appears to have been flattened by the violence of the manicured suburbs: "It's the American way the nuclear family the nuclear bomb the white picket fence."

Zambreno's narration rips each character to shreds with barely contained glee. On Mommy:

She hates the idea of FREE WILL. She thinks some children can be selfish, the way they grow up and reject everything spoon-fed to them. She wishes she could freeze Mikey and Maggie when they were five and three, that's the age she would freeze her young tots, she would keep them that age forever, dip them in that freezing vat like strawberries in chocolate fondue! Yum yum. Now Mommy's hungry.

And on Maggie, who is pondering free will while reading Sartre: "She is quite thoughtful, she is quite reflective, her face is like a reflective surface." O Fallen Angel indicts the American dream and the domestic trap at its center, the confined and confining Mommy who "uses Wild Rose Shampoo and Wild Rose Laundry Detergent and Wild Rose Room Sanitizer" to camouflage realities she considers unsavory, including her own brutal selfishness.

Where the scathing satirical tone of O Fallen Angel implicitly calls for the figurative death of the suffocating mother, Zambreno's latest work, Book of Mutter, explores the actual death of her own mother from cancer. She describes her as "this glamorous, remote, somewhat tragic woman" with strong arms tanned from mowing the lawn, arms that will waste away, growing thin like "a young winter tree." And yet she could also be "any woman remote and unknowable. Any woman furious and desperate." This is a central theme in all Zambreno's work, a fascination with women trapped by their personal, social, and historical circumstances, required to diminish their lives by the demands of a misogynist culture, compelled to participate in their own demise. These are the women Zambreno seeks to set free, not by saving them but by exploring how their internal worlds become warped.

In Book of Mutter, there is no external satirist-narrator to celebrate the destruction of her characters—only Kate Zambreno herself, engaged in a fragmented act of mourning. "Writing is how I attempt to repair myself," Zambreno notes. Book of Mutter is a hybrid nonfiction text—moving back and forth between art criticism and poetry, personal rumination and philosophical inquiry—that took her thirteen years to complete. The book is relentless in its search for meaning and its simultaneous refusal of simplistic acts of closure. Even its structure seems designed to reflect pain intermittently avoided and confronted. Zambreno places her memories into a kind of assemblage piece, where the form shifts with the underlying emotions. She writes that her model for this form was Louise Bourgeois's Cells sculptures, one of which appears on the book's cover. The image shows a marble miniature of Bourgeois's childhood home sitting behind a fence, with a huge guillotine suspended above it. The sense of an unfinished history, between a doomed past and a suspended present, haunts Book of Mutter. There may be something sculptural in its layering of other texts, which overlap with Zambreno's own, distinguished only by italics. But the way the book primarily evokes sculpture is by allowing its shape to be so pointedly determined by what isn't there, what we sense has been pared away. The emphasis is on the gaps. Studying her family photographs, Zambreno quotes Roland Barthes: "It's true that a photograph is a witness, but a witness of something that is no more." The book's fragments are like photographs of a mother who hated to have her picture taken. What ghost story is Zambreno hoping to reveal?

"The central fact of my life is that my mother is dead," Zambreno writes, echoing a line from a biography of Henry Darger, another obsessive artist she admires. "The central fact of his life is that his mother died when he was young." Darger painted his enormous, fantastical watercolors in secret, stitching them inside huge books in his one-room apartment until eventually he was forced to move to a sickbed in a Catholic house for the poor. His landlord then found and sold the pieces. Darger had also written a five-thousand-page autobiography, "mostly about a tornado named Sweetie Pie," and compiled a daily weather journal for a decade. Zambreno scours the details of his life for her own "compulsive autobiography, an impossible history," asking, "If writing is a way of collecting, even hoarding memories," then what can it mean "to also wish to disown?" She wonders whether art was, for both Darger and Bourgeois, "a form of exorcism, to be able to channel and control, their abandonment, their past? A form of survival." This is clearly part of her own impulse in Book of Mutter, which is both an unwinding and an homage—to "my mother my mirror," "my mother my sworn enemy my first love," "my mother my enemy my best friend."

It's clear why Zambreno might wish to disown the mother who surveilled her every action as a kid, examining everything in her bag after school, and who would say, as a joke, "I'm going to take you out back and shoot you Katie." But Book of Mutter is more elegiac than condemnatory. Zambreno describes a mother who fiercely defended her daughter's strangeness, who protected her "the second time I broke down," when a psychiatrist recommended admitting Zambreno to a hospital for electroshock treatments. Making his case, the doctor says, "Do you see how fast she's talking? How sped-up she is?" But: "We're taking her home with us, my mother says—and that was that."

In Book of Mutter, the hospital is a terrifying place of "perpetual return." It is where Zambreno cradles her dying mother like a child, "once so proud and independent, now so frail, body yellow with bruises. I bathed her lovingly with my tears." Now it's Zambreno who is being pressured by the doctors to allow her mother to undergo electroshock, "so that she can be shaken out of her psychosis and go back to chemotherapy, which she does not want." She is only saved from this treatment by the swift progress of her cancer. Even on her deathbed, the mother will not entirely reverse roles with her daughter. Still wanting to control, to exert pressure, she tells Zambreno, "I loved having babies. . . . I loved being pregnant."

Zambreno tries to imagine having a child to preserve her mother: "I would name her Mommy. So when she was gone she would still be with me. My baby alone. My dolly." Is this compliance, or revenge? The Mommy character in O Fallen Angel has tried to treat Maggie like a doll, but she is also herself a kind of zombie dolly, spewing her mechanical utterances, propelled by the sanitized but tainted American myths of upward mobility. "Mommies don't sweat and Mommies don't poop and Mommies don't fart," her internal monologue runs. You can imagine her with batteries, intoning this on repeat to make children giggle. But who would want to hold her?

"My dead mother wormed her way into every book I have ever written," Zambreno writes. "I kept on trying to erase her from the pages, change her into other mothers." She is no longer intent on erasing the memory of her mother—instead, she offers up all her mother's complications, and her own, together on the page. "Have I forgotten to record my mother's essential kindness?" Zambreno asks near the end of the book, in her own act of generosity. She quotes Louise Bourgeois: "Every day you have to abandon the past or accept it. If you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor." As a child, Zambreno could not discipline her speech into words that other people could understand, but in Book of Mutter, the words ricochet, forming an incantation. Zambreno chooses to become a sculptor, creating a structure out of contradictions, shaping her memories into one gasping, heaving text.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author, most recently, of The End of San Francisco (City Lights, 2013).