Author(s): Kate Zambreno
Book to Watch in 2019: The Millions, Nylon, Domino, Bustle, Book Riot, Buzzfeed, Vol. 1 Brooklyn A new work equal parts observational micro-fiction and cultural criticism reflecting on the dailiness of life as a woman and writer, on fame and failure, aging and art, from the acclaimed author of Heroines, Green Girl, and O Fallen Angel. In the first half of Kate Zambreno's astoundingly original collection Screen Tests, the narrator regales us with incisive and witty swatches from a life lived inside a brilliant mind, meditating on aging and vanity, fame and failure, writing and writers, along with portraits of everyone from Susan Sontag to Amal Clooney, Maurice Blanchot to Louise Brooks. The series of essays that follow, on figures central to Zambreno's thinking, including Kathy Acker, David Wojnarowicz, and Barbara Loden, are manifestoes about art, that ingeniously intersect and chime with the stories that came before them. "If Thomas Bernhard's and Fleur Jaeggy's work had a charming, slightly misanthropic baby--with Diane Arbus as nanny--it would be Screen Tests. Kate Zambreno turns her precise and meditative pen toward a series of short fictions that are anything but small. The result is a very funny, utterly original look at cultural figures and tropes and what it means to be a human looking at humans."--Amber Sparks "In Screen Tests, a voice who both is and is not the author picks up a thread and follows it wherever it leads, leaping from one thread to another without quite letting go, creating a delicate and ephemeral and wonderful portrait of how a particular mind functions. Call them stories (after Lydia Davis), reports (after Gerald Murnane), or screen tests (inventing a new genre altogether like Antoine Volodine). These are marvelously fugitive pieces, carefully composed while giving the impression of being effortless, with a quite lovely Calvino-esque lightness, that are a joy to try to keep up with."--Brian Evenson
He finishes the book and draws up the green table to write his review. He takes a slip of paper from between the pages of the book, his reading notes, he calls such slips upon which he usually notes down quotes from the book he is preparing to review, or ideas he may have had during reading the book, which may or may not have arisen from the book, reading notes which are intended to make the writing of each week’s review a little easier for him, though ease is not exactly his aim in writing the reviews, in fact, if he wanted ease, he wouldn’t write reviews at all, or he would just say, Read this book. I enjoyed it and I think you will too. Or words to that effect. He looks at both sides of the slip of paper, but the only thing he has written on it this week seems to be a sentence that is presumably a quote from the book Screen Tests by Kate Zambreno. “When one writes, one is already someone else.” Fair enough, he thinks. That is the sort of thought he might think if he thought thoughts, he thinks, but more likely it is the sort of thought he would copy out of a book, though this sense of the word ‘copy’ seems more appropriative than he is comfortable with, perhaps, he thinks, revealing something shamelessly (or shamefully, he can’t decide) acquisitory about his reading. Appropriative and not appropriate. Kate Zambreno’s book consists of 58 “stories”, some of them as short as a sentence, some as long as a few pages, followed by five “essays”, written a few years earlier, somewhat longer. In fact, the only real difference between the “stories” and the “essays”, he thinks, is their length. The “essays” are more obviously the result of sustained effort, that sense of essaying, he thinks, though they take no real effort to read, they are easy and pleasurable to read, he thinks, even if not quite as easy and pleasurable to read as the “stories”, which are written with such lightness and quickness that they are already inside the reader’s mind, fully formed, claiming space, before the reader is aware that their beauty is snide, prickly, misanthropic, resonant with misery and failure. Both the “stories” and the “essays”, he thinks, are commonly about, or “about”, writers, artists, actors, filmmakers, photographers and others, engaged in a doomed, and therefore, perhaps, heroic, or, if not heroic, then pathetic, or, if such a thing is possible, both heroic and pathetic struggle with the forces of entropy, age, boredom, depression, addiction, AIDS, poverty, prejudice, and so forth, forces that will strip them of the benefit of their intellectual labour and convert it into intellectual capital that can be appropriated by someone else. He doesn’t know if this intellectual labour/ intellectual capital model is useful, even of itself, though it has been something he has been thinking a bit about lately, suspicious as he is of the workings of intellectual capital just as he is of those of financial capital, and, anyway, it is too heavy and clumsy a tool with which to grasp the poignant evanescences of Screen Tests. When he does write his review, he thinks, if he actually manages to write a review, he will instead say something about the way in which Zambreno’s intense interest in, he will probably call it obsession with, her subject matter identifies her, in her own mind, with another precarious, tentative creative person unable to distinguish a tightrope from a tripwire. “Can one’s obsession be a form of autobiography?” she asks, and it soon becomes evident, he will write, that the unfiltered openness of an obsession allows an immeasurable quantity of cross-contamination between the parties, or, if not so much between the parties, between the obsessor and the idea she has of the other with whom she is obsessed, to the extent that the two can no longer be usefully distinguished. All Zambreno’s pieces in the book are in the first person, he has noted, though this note is mental and not on the almost empty slip of paper that pretends to be his reading notes, all Zambreno’s pieces are I pieces, all her obsessions are self-obsessions, indeed surely all obsessions must be self-obsessions, for reasons already roughly sketched, all Zambreno’s obsessions are self-obsessions but what better access to the experience of another could be provided than through the aperture of obsession? Is this not what literature is for? For Zambreno, as for us all, he thinks, identity is porous, she is the people she writes about, she writes to be them, she writes to somehow exist, to survive, to enact, as they do, a “revolt against disappearance.” She is someone else in order to be herself, he thinks, maintaining the first person but destabilising its referent, in much the same way, he thinks, as he might write in the third person to give the impression that he is not writing about himself, to deflect the eye of a reader but also to destabilise the third person referent, for, he thinks, it must be the case that obsession transgresses identity in both directions. When Zambreno has writer’s block when working on one of her essays she says to herself, “I am unsure of what is the use of all this first person anymore,” and when he similarly has reviewer’s block when faced with reviewing Screen Tests, a book about which it would perhaps be better if he merely wrote, Read this book, I enjoyed it and I think you will too, or words to that effect, he finds himself unable to proceed because he fears that, even if he writes in the third person it might seem as if he is writing about himself instead of about the book Screen Tests by Kate Zambreno even though he really is writing about the book Screen Tests. He would not like people to think he was writing about himself, especially when he was not, and, even worse, he would not like them to think that he was expecting them to be interested in his writing about himself when he certainly would never expect them to be so interested, even if he was writing about himself, which he was not. This is the nature of my reviewer’s block, he thinks. I cannot proceed because I do not wish to be present in the text but I cannot proceed without being present in the text. He drinks his fourth cup of coffee and stares at the blank screen of his computer, the screen upon which he was to compose his review. I have still made no progress, he thinks, though, he supposes, four cups of coffee are in themselves a form of progress.