After falling in love with Drifts by Kate Zambreno, I picked up her 2017 Book of Mutter, a nonfiction book about many things but especially the death of her mother. It’s a gorgeous book as an object as well as a piece of writing. She worked on it over the course of 13 years, struggling with it until finally she found a way forward (she describes trying to find a publisher for it in Drifts). I kept thinking about genre as I read; Book of Mutter and Drifts feel similar to me in a lot of ways because even though one is a novel and one is nonfiction, many of the details overlap and the voice and consciousness described feel similar.
But Drifts is longer, wordier, more detailed, while Book of Mutter is suggestive and about silence as much as speaking. Drifts is about dailiness, getting through time, what the narrator does with her days. Book of Mutter works more through juxtaposing ideas and putting original writing up against quotation and letting readers make connections. There’s lots of white space in Book of Mutter; it can be a quick read, except that you will want to pause after each page to reread and think.
I’m not sure that genre matters much here, at least not in the way we usually think about fiction vs. nonfiction. Drifts feels more novelistic in its attention to daily life and its narrator who is more present and perhaps more coherent as a character than the speaker in Book of Mutter. Book of Mutter is more poetic in its suggestiveness and in the way the text is arranged on the page where what is on the page is a matter of the writer’s choice rather than font and margins. But these things aside, the “truth” of each book doesn’t feel important. Is the nonfiction book more true to life than the novel? As a reader, I don’t care. Both are an attempt to capture consciousness on the page and whose consciousness it is and whether it reflects a person who exists in the world doesn’t matter, at least not to me. What matters is that the mind on the page is one I want to spend time with.
Both books are about time and memory. Both wander and repeat, taking up one subject, moving to another and another, coming back to the first and adding to it. They are about ideas, not events. In both, the speaker/narrator makes sense of her life through artists and philosophers. In Book of Mutter, artists Henry Darger and Louise Bourgeois and writers Roland Barthes and Virginia Woolf are especially important. Both books are about family relationships, the narrator in both trying to understand her parents and how they shaped her. In Book of Mutter the mother figure is mysterious, aloof, complicated, and Zambreno uses photographs, family stories, and memories to try to see her as a person and to sort out the love and anger she feels towards her. She’s haunted by a half-sister the family never fully acknowledged and negotiating a changing relationship with her father now that her mother is gone.
Both are beautiful, haunting books, ones I will happily read again. I’ve now read three Zambreno books this year (these two plus Screen Tests), which means I’ve read five of her books total (including Green Girl and Heroines). That leaves The Appendix Project and O Fallen Angel if I want to read all of them, which I do. I would kind of like to read them in order of publication to see how they develop and compare, especially since it’s been a while since I read Green Girl and Heroines. We’ll see. I do know that Zambreno has become one of my favorite contemporary writers.