Signs and Symbols

Drifts BY Kate Zambreno. New York: Riverhead. 336 pages. $26.

The cover of Drifts

ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH Kate Zambreno’s novel Drifts, the unnamed narrator notices a butternut squash. It makes her think of a detail in a Dürer engraving. Later, in a restaurant, she spots a decorative squash. “There appears to be a vast referentiality everywhere,” she tells us. It’s true that patterns exist—or, anyway, that we’re constantly finding them. It’s less true, I think, that there’s meaning in this fact. It’s only a game we while our lives away playing.

Drifts has place (New York) and players (the narrator’s friends; her partner, John; a neighbor; her dog, Genet), but not much in the way of plot. That the narrator is pregnant might prime readers for a motherhood novel—which it is, in a fashion—but the book is not especially interested in that. Instead, the text is more concerned with recounting its own birth: “In the summer of 2015, I was supposed to be at work on Drifts, a book I had been under contract for almost as long as I had lived in this city, renting the first floor of a shabby Victorian house in a tree-lined neighborhood so remote it was almost a suburb.”

The book continues in this vein, documenting the author’s attempts to complete a manuscript. Zambreno is not the first to detonate novelistic conventions and offer us the resulting fragments. Nor is she unique in mulling the very task she’s undertaken. Self-reference isn’t unusual in our fictions, isn’t even all that highbrow. On Seinfeld, in 1992, George and Jerry, characters on a television show, brainstormed a television show. Their proposal—“I go in to NBC, and tell them I got this idea for a show about nothing”—might refer as well to Zambreno’s latest work.

If a novel needs a quest, Drifts’ is clear: “What I longed to write was a small book of wanderings, animals. A paper-thin object, a ghost.” The narrator obviously pulls this off—it’s the work in our hands—but in the process documents all that stands in her way, namely herself. “The publishing people told me that I was writing a novel, but I was unsure,” she says, early in the narrative. Even as it nears its conclusion, there is doubt: “I have to turn in this project at the end of August,” she writes to a friend, “and I’m paralyzed!”

Drifts interrogates itself, its form, the writer’s very task: “How difficult it can be . . . to describe the texture of what it means to walk around in a body.” This hand-wringing exhausts the goodwill of the reader; the fact of the book we are reading belies the text’s hesitations and apologies. To make something “paper-thin” (a nice phrase) is not an unworthy end. But Zambreno’s self-consciousness about this desire feels at first absurd—why write in this manner if it occasions such doubt?—and then, more pages having passed, nearer a provocation.

THE NARRATOR ASKS HERSELF, “What prevents me from writing the book?” Every procrastinator will empathize with her answer:

The heat, the dog, the day, air-conditioning, desiring to exist in the present tense, constant thinking, sickness, fucking, groceries, cooking, yoga, loneliness and sadness, the internet, political depression, my period, obsession with skin care, late capitalism, binge-watching television on my computer, competition and jealousy over the attention of other writers, confusion over the novel, circling around but not finishing anything, reading, researching, masturbating, time passing.

The narrator walks her dog, often encountering the same elderly neighbor. She sits on the porch. She emails friends. She bickers with her partner. She masturbates. “My editor later reads this above passage, and wants to inquire exactly why the narrator is masturbating.” Of course the pursuit of orgasm is questioned: this is a novel about means, not ends; process, not payoff. This was, for me, its principal frustration. Art about the creation of art can charm and surprise, but Drifts too often reiterates its vaunted aspiration and laments its inability to achieve it. Artistic creation has its drama, but it’s expressed here as self-doubt, inaction, excuses. The stakes are far higher for the writer than they ever are for the reader.

Dedy Sufriadi, World Under Series, Habitus #1, 2013, mixed media on canvas, 571⁄8 × 783⁄4".
Dedy Sufriadi, World Under Series, Habitus #1, 2013, mixed media on canvas, 571⁄8 × 783⁄4". Courtesy the artist

“I think about how John and I became artists to try to live a life of the mind, of active contemplation,” the narrator says. “My desire to write a novel that contains the energy of thought.” Thought is, however, an essential component of every novel, its animating force. The form itself is artifice, duping the reader into experiencing it, inhabiting it, as a daydream, a reverie, another self. The act of reading is an act of thinking, essential to completing the transaction that is a successful novel.

Perhaps Drifts’ lack of success can be attributed to the fact that the author intends not to capture the energy of thought but to transcribe her own thoughts. There’s no attempt to construct character or scene to provide the reader that sense of immersion into another reality; it’s nearer a catalogue of the writer’s fancies. Those wander from Elizabeth Hardwick to Joseph Cornell, Rilke to Dürer, Nan Goldin to Robert Walser, Barbara Loden to Chantal Akerman. You’ll either be seduced or reject this as solipsism. It is a fine aim to make a fiction that moves as the mind does. But Drifts is an accretion of observations, one-liners, private symbols, palaver. The text’s declaration that it is a novel is gutsy in a way I cannot help admire, but the whole seems to exist only to affirm the author’s sense of herself.

I’VE SEEN THIS EXCERPT of Drifts, plainly a swipe at Ben Lerner, disembodied, on Instagram:

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.

I disagree with the narrator, who is hard to distinguish from Zambreno, when she asserts that her work is the type of thing Lerner writes. Yes, he has, in three different novels, mined his own experiences, probed the contours of the self—“so-called autofiction.” In the specificity of his own experience, Lerner searches for something that might hold meaning for a reader who is not himself. He’s not always successful, but recently, I was trying to recall the specifics of a hazy memory (watching a movie in an apartment, torrential rain outside), then was abashed to realize this memory was in fact an early scene of Lerner’s 10:04.

A more appropriate point of comparison than Lerner is Sheila Heti, particularly her 2018 book, Motherhood. Motherhood novels often posit maternity as a kind of sanctified selflessness; Heti shows it as deeply self-involved. Her narrator discusses with friends whether or not to have a child, seeks the advice of the I Ching, thinks back on her own childhood. She never becomes a mother, yet the narrative is wholly immersed in the question of motherhood. It’s clever, and funny, and ultimately very moving.

For Zambreno’s narrator, pregnancy is not the center of her identity but an ancillary matter. Her family comes to town—“I know they want to see my pregnant body”—but her mind is elsewhere: “I’ve been also thinking of Wittgenstein’s prostate cancer, Rilke’s leukemia.” Her resistance to documenting a changing physiognomy and the attendant psychic state of pregnancy is a comic rebellion, a maybe-homage to Heti’s work.

Drifts never quite manages the trick of Motherhood, its humor and rebelliousness undermined by its self-interrogation. “What is a drift? Perhaps a drift is a sort of form,” the narrator theorizes. It seems obvious that a drift is a form—Diane Williams, Renata Adler, Mary Robison, Julio Cortázar, Patrick Modiano, and many others have built narratives this way. The question is not whether a drift is “a sort of form” but whether a drift is worth grappling with to the degree Zambreno does.

There is a discomfiting thrum to Drifts, and perhaps by design. “Can a work of literature contain the energy of the internet, its distracted nature?” the narrator asks. Accordingly, I’m not sure if I read this book or scrolled through it, its web of references and tenuous logic eerily mirroring the experience of surfing Twitter just before bed. Zambreno’s book does capture the shallow trap of poking around on the internet, all that information slipping right past you, link to link leading you who knows where. Like two hours in an online fever dream, Drifts is evanescent, unrewarding, and ultimately forgettable. It’s “a paper-thin object, a ghost.” Mission accomplished.

“That’s what publishing a book felt like—that every book was somehow an elaborate fraud, and I would someday be found out,” Zambreno’s narrator worries. I understand the writerly crisis of confidence, but in the end, I simply don’t believe this demurral. Drifts does away with the pleasures of plot and character by design. It mostly withholds the surprise of language. It wants to engage us by laying bare the writer’s consciousness, but I felt my attention drift.

Rumaan Alam’s third novel, Leave the World Behind, will be published by Ecco in October.