How to Write about Nothing: Kate Zambreno’s Drifts

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In Kate Zambreno’s latest novel, Drifts, a nameless narrator whose life bears great resemblance to Zambreno’s (writer, teacher, New Yorker) grapples with the challenge of writing a novel, also called Drifts, her “fantasy of a memoir about nothing.” The narrator wanders the streets of her neighborhood, she cares for her terrier, she tracks stray cats, she people-watches, she masturbates, she menstruates, she rides the train, she visits museums with her partner, she emails a cast of correspondents—all part of her effort to embody the life of a writer while evading (one might say drifting away from) the completion of her manuscript. But the evasion is purposeful, and the purpose is to marvelous effect. “What is a drift?” she says, “Perhaps a drift is a sort of form.” And indeed it is.

Drifts is assembled in a fragmentary manner similar to Book of Mutter and a number of Zambreno’s other works: it incorporates elements of the flâneur novel—W. G. Sebald and Robert Walser hover in the background throughout—alongside scraps of diaristic entries, biographical sketches, ekphrastic digressions, inserted photographs, and a multitude of autofictional threads. The prose, as readers of Zambreno know, unspools as coolly as ribbon in the wind. The novel is told in two sections—“Sketches of Animals and Landscapes” and “Vertigo”—comprised of numerous short chapters. As the chapters skip forward, this fragmentary “memoir about nothing” provides fertile ground for thinking through the constellation of themes that occupy so much of Zambreno’s oeuvre: time, grief, images, art, the body, and, most importantly, the practice of writing itself. Formally, the composition and progression are reminiscent of Agustín Fernández Mallo’s first two entries in his Nocilla Trilogy or Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The latter is perhaps the foremost influence on Drifts, both for its style and the life of its author.

Zambreno’s novel opens with a brief biographical portrait of Rilke, whose story continues to be recounted at length across the text, his past struggles to successfully finish his own novel and pursue his art mirrored by the narrator’s struggles in the present. This twinning also becomes a sort of theme: the effort to promote fragments to the status of full entities, wholly paired or layered atop one another, a collection of disparate parts that gradually reveal their connectivity. Hence the narrator’s fascination (following Rilke) with Rodin’s sculptures of human appendages. “A piece of arm and leg and body is for Rodin an entire thing, [Rilke] writes his wife,” writes Zambreno’s narrator, in a characteristically note-driven scene.

Elsewhere, Zambreno juxtaposes the memory of a neighborhood dog with the photograph of a dog by Peter Hujar with a cut-out of the dog in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving, Melencholia I. The overlapping images express the same drifty overlap between chapters, as seasons pass and the rituals of work and life and the writing process begin to blur. The narrator’s search for meaning among pieces of art and/or biography is offered to the reader as an example for interpreting the pieces of text that join the novel, not that the pieces need it—in Zambreno’s hands, the short chunks of language often function much like photographs, preserving snippets of mood or experience in an equally circumscribed manner to the cropped images that occasionally appear beside them.

“For some time, I have been interested in the writing one is doing when one is not writing,” the narrator declares at the outset. She seeks “what Blanchot calls désoeuvrement, translated variously as ‘inoperativeness,’ ‘inertia,’ ‘idleness,’ ‘unworking,’ or my favorite, ‘worklessness.’” This writing without writing becomes a mild obsession, a means to explore writing, to reconsider how one builds a meaningful body of language. For Zambreno’s narrator, the solution seems just out of reach. “How to empty a text in order to fill it”? How to write “that fleeting feeling in the morning”? Her best answer, in practice, is as much about being present in the world as any attempt to render it; in other words, those “sketches of animals and landscapes”—tiny recurring arcs, hardly complete stories—that populate the first section of the novel and drift over into the second. “I have been obsessed with a tiny striped cat, an orphan who disappears for months at a time,” she writes.

Later that spring I saw her perched, as if surprised, on top of a trash can in the alley, gnawing at the remnants of a slice of pizza… I would feel such joy, watching her little tongue go in and out… I marked in my notebook whenever I saw the cat, keeping track of her comings and goings. In this way, as with keeping track of my interactions with the old woman, I felt that I was at work on my novel.

The narrator’s concerted practice of doing nothing, of observing her nothingness, attunes her to the frequencies required of writing. This is how to “fold time into a book”: by studying the change in texture of her dog’s poop during the summer; by monitoring the movements of her neighbors; by reading, taking notes, watching films. Because nothing, of course, is still something; it’s just not the something a reader usually expects from a book’s protagonist. As Drifts moves forward, the narrator’s novel remains in stasis, but her incessant circling around the questions of how best to furnish her manuscript begins to yield these deeper truths; moments of meditation cohere into a broader treatise on the life best lived to support the written word: by pausing for each aching or minimal moment, exalting in its slowness, embracing its piecemeal qualities, she fulfills the demands of her fiction. “I attempt time,” she writes. “I try not to let the days bleed. I attempt to be in the room, outside of the internet.”

At the beginning of “Vertigo,” Drifts’s second section, the narrator learns she’s pregnant, and a focus on time and bodies—how time is marked, measured, and publicly displayed by the pregnant female body, especially—is cast in a new light. Zambreno deftly and subtly layers the contents of the first section atop the vertigo, both physical and otherwise, of her narrator’s impending motherhood. An editor, for example, can no longer recognize the narrator from her pre-pregnancy author photo: vertigo by unintended disguise. The narrator loses herself in further studies of Rilke: “the vertigo of another’s life.” She seeks kinship in the potentially pregnant stray cats that roam her neighborhood. Photographs inserted into the text now appear only singly, no longer in twos—the doubleness is confined within the pictures of expecting women showing their stomachs, one a portrait of Zambreno herself; another a still from a film by Chantal Akerman. “I think of the moment in Camera Lucida when Barthes describes getting his author photograph taken, experiencing ‘a kind of vertigo—something of a detective anguish,’” confides the narrator. As different times, texts, and experiences continue to accumulate in Zambreno’s controlled and well-paced collage, the past seems ever more present, and the future ever closer to touch.

“[Akerman’s] work was so brilliant at recording dead time and blank space,” the narrator observes. One could say the same of Zambreno’s work: her narrator’s ambition, and literary and artistic attentions, provide the critic with a ready-made template for assessing her own work. Passages devoted to Hardwick or Kafka flow with impressive ease into those portraying the narrator’s intimate struggles to live and make a living from her art, the minutiae and mundanity and embarrassing moments all given equal weight and measure. By elevating the status of the fragment, then restricting the fragment to its most minimal form—dead time, blank space: nothing—Zambreno empties her text and revels in the resultant openness: the opportunity to ruminate, to record, to connect a disparate set of influences and ephemera, in prose that provokes without need of plot. “Art for me is a way to remark upon solitude,” writes the narrator. “A way to mark time.” Likewise for Zambreno, whose avowed “worklessness” undergirds this abundantly productive and imaginative work.

Sean McCoy is a writer from Arizona. He edits Contra Viento, a journal of art and literature from rangelands. More from this author →