Zambreno's Heroines on Fanzine

by on Dec.10, 2012

My review of Kate Zambreno’s excellent third book HEROINES is up now on Fanzine. Here’s an excerpt:

This pattern of men vampirizing their partners’ subjectivities is a central concern of the book: T.S. Eliot writing Vivien(ne)’s hysterical chatter in The Waste Land and subsequently abandoning her; Paul Bowles fictionalizing his marriage with Jane in The Sheltering Sky, a depiction that left her unable to write for years. “Is making someone a character giving them life, or taking it away?” Zambreno asks. Representational vampirism is the stuff that literature is (often) made of, of course; the problem, she makes clear, is that the men in question were championed for aestheticizing their partners’ “madness” while the women themselves were pathologized, institutionalized, and/or forgotten precisely because of it.

In a sense Zambreno is another vampire – in channeling these women she is using them to understand and support her own experience. But Zambreno’s is a reparative vampirism, a depathologizing corrective that identifies and empathizes instead of objectifying. Less reparatively, Zambreno vampirizes her own partner/husband, subverting the gender roles of her precedents by asserting herself as the artist and her partner as muse, their relationship her raw material, not his—even as she is describing the very gendered dynamics of their conflicts: her screaming and throwing things while he retreats into stoicism. Throughout, she interrogates these dynamics, reminding herself that they are playing roles, that John, her partner, is not T.S. Eliot or Scott Fitzgerald: “We might slip into these roles, we might play these ghosts, but we have become aware of this…He tries to listen. We try to learn.”

…Zambreno’s investment in her oppression, as a wife and as a woman writer, whether sympathetic or not, is the book’s greatest strength, and the reason why it will become an enduring text. Except when she celebrates the mainly-women literary blogging community that she helped build, Zambreno’s writing is characterized by cynicism and open hostility. Heroines is a performance of radical negativity, in other words: deploying an indulgent bitterness and a seething resentment, Zambreno refuses to be satisfied with what women writers have been allotted, and she is adamantly, fiercely entitled to more.

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12 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    Interesting review, Megan. I too wondered about the lack of race and class analysis. Considering the massive assault on the poor and working class in the last thirty years, with progressive taxation, for example, being undermined both politically and rhetorically, I wished the question of class had been an issue.

    I also wondered why Willa Cather isn’t discussed in the book. She was a major literary figure during the time discussed in the book. Her absence must have been deliberate considering she is often discussed with Fitzgerald and the rest, but I really didn’t understand why.

    Thanks for the review, Megan.
    James

  2. Johannes

    Interesting piece, Megan. Where does the vampirism come from? Is that your metaphor or Kate’s? (I haven’t read the book yet so I don’t know). That seems to me to be an interesting way to view art – and art’s relationship to life (your review suggests that the book views itself as a kind of vampire on these authors – more interesting than a typical “Let me tell their story” kind of deal. In part because vampirism does away with the typically distancing critical frameworks developed in the academy, and in part because this is of course a traditionally feminine role – the vampire (see Munch and a lot of late 19th century painting and poetry). / Johannes

  3. Johannes

    And how might this vampire trope relate to James’s last post about masks etc?

  4. Johannes

    Interesting piece, Megan. Where does the vampirism come from? Is that your metaphor or Kate’s? (I haven’t read the book yet so I don’t know). That seems to me to be an interesting way to view art – and art’s relationship to life (your review suggests that the book views itself as a kind of vampire on these authors – more interesting than a typical “Let me tell their story” kind of deal. In part because vampirism does away with the typically distancing critical frameworks developed in the academy, and in part because this is of course a traditionally feminine role – the vampire (see Munch and a lot of late 19th century painting and poetry). / Johannes

  5. James Pate

    I should mention I think Zambreno is an interesting writer. I’ve written elsewhere about her previous books. It’s just that I did wonder about certain issues with the new book, as others have too…

  6. megan milks

    Helo James! I can’t speak for Kate re: Cather but will hope she steps in here. Kate’s responded a bit on FFIMS to certain critiques of her book, addressing the class issue in the comments of a recent post (“Ad Feminem…” is the title). In certain ways, I want to defend her focus on gender as a lens – gender and madness, too – because, well, that’s her focus! And an entirely important one. But yes, for a book that’s so sensitive to and self-conscious about power and hierarchy, it is disappointing that these other issues weren’t addressed head-on.

    Johannes, vampirism is Kate’s metaphor, mostly used to describe/critique what she sees as the exploitive vampirism of men writing (“mad”) women. I don’t know that she uses it to describe her own method, but she does write of herself as “cannibalizing” these women, a metaphor obvs very similar to vampirism. More frequently she uses a channeling metaphor — this is the dominant trope, I think, the book theorizing itself as a seance or medium for ghosts. But vampirism is equally supported if not as frequently invoked.

    James, your post for some reason is not loading as its own page for me — I can read it on the home page, but the post’s specific URL is not working. FYI. But yes, Heroines is in dialogue with these ideas, very much working against this notion of the authentic self/voice, instead producing a self flickering in and out of time, becoming other selves — “‘I’ turning us into a crowd,” as you write — whether through spirit or blood, or both.

  7. James Pate

    Megan,

    I really like your reading of the book regarding her use of first person. You’re right. I think she does become a crowd, as even the cover would suggest.

    What I liked best about the book — and I know this might sound strange — was the hate. It reminded me of some the the issues I was talking about Art and Hate. It’s like a strong wind moving through her book.

    James

  8. James Pate

    That should read: “in the post about Art and Hate.”

  9. James Pate

    Megan,

    Thanks for pointing out the discussion on FFIMS. I didn’t realize Kate was already talking about these issues.

    James

  10. Johannes Göransson

    Yes, I would say I think that class is not important to the book (from what I understand) but – not having read the book but having read Kate’s blog and talked to her etc – it doesn’t seem like that’s her focus, her book. Her thinking seems a lot concerned with the glamor of a certain kind of very theatrical woman – having much to do with their haircuts etc. And on the whole I find that an interesting position to take. I’ll write a post about it soonly.Suddenly I have ideas pouring into my brain galore. I can dance for inspiration. Johannes

  11. Johannes Göransson

    It’s also really awesome taht the review is on a site called “Fanzine” because isn’t this a “fan fiction” of sorts?

    Johannes

  12. James Pate

    Going back to the point on art and hate, I would say class anger (along the lines of the Occupy movement, etc.) was what I meant and not a class analysis of the author’s supposed class privilege (which I gather has been an issue from reading Kate’s blog this morning). I don’t understand the obsession with a person’s position. It’s like when Republicans call Paul Krugman a hypocrite for having a very liberal economic philosophy while at the same time being rich. Who cares if he’s rich? I agree with him more than a person from my own class who votes Republican. Krugman himself would be the first person to say his economic policies, if carried out, would make him a much less wealthier person. It’s very odd, the way some people equate identity with ideas.

    More hate, toward the mindset of many of the wealthy and the policies of neo-liberalism, not less, was what I was getting at. And class revolt and theater can very much go hand and hand: as in the carnivals of the middle ages, as in Genet, and in some of the Occupy movement’s parades and performances.

    James