“Can a work of literature contain the energy of the internet, its distracted nature?” Kate Zambreno asks in “Drifts,” a novel about a writer of the same name living in Brooklyn and working on a book with the same title. Although there are clearly autobiographical elements, it’s a work of fiction. “I desire to be drained of the personal,” the narrator writes to a friend. “To not give myself away.” Written in fragmented bursts and sometimes interspersed with photos, the dominant thread is the character’s attempt to distill the way she drifts through her days, often in isolation but sometimes in communion with the world and the various writers, filmmakers, and artists that feed her own imagination.
Zambreno is a writer who doesn’t sit comfortably in one genre, but blurs the boundaries and makes the reader question why they have to exist in the first place. Maggie Nelson said of “Heroines,” a vital addition to feminist memoir and literary criticism illuminating modernist women like Zelda Fitzgerald and Jane Bowles, that Zambreno “admirably transforms copious research and personal experience into vernacular knowledge…” and the same could be said of “Drifts,” a book that has the intimacy of a private notebook fused with the intellectual rigor of a brilliant mind.
The narrator spends large swaths of time at home with her dog, Genet. She feels the weight of responsibility, the pressure to finish a book with a looming deadline, the urge to keep taking notes as a way to know her own thoughts. On walks around her neighborhood, she takes pictures of the same trees, noticing how the gaping holes in one of them calls to mind Edvard Munch’s iconic painting, “The Scream.” She watches movies by the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman and spends a lot of time thinking about Rainer Maria Rilke, who once wrote: “One lives so badly, because one always comes into the present unfinished, unable, distracted.”
“Drifts” is a book that moves from one association to the next, following those distractions and connecting decorative spiderwebs that adorn neighbors’ bushes and homes during Halloween with Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations,” or Rilke’s likeness with her own dog. “[T]o write with attention to the present is in some way to become like a dog,” the author suggests, referring to a comment W.G. Sebald once made about following his own “thoughts and connections like a dog in a field.”
This way of wandering through the author’s psyche is both dizzying and intimate, mapping her desires and her despair. “If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes,” one of the narrator’s students quotes to her from an Agnès Varda film, “The Beaches of Agnès.” And perhaps we’d find drifts piled up, too, all of the obsessions and thoughts and mundane things a person accumulates during a life.
To drift is to travel slowly through the world, to meander from one thought to the next. In these “diaristic texts,” as the narrator herself refers to her method of writing, Zambreno points out that “there appears to be a vast referentiality everywhere.” The Internet works this way, too, as we click from one thing to the next.
With the melancholic splendor of its prose, “Drifts” is the perfect book for the moment we’re living in; most of us feel some sense of isolation and heaviness as we stumble our way through the uniformity but instability of our days, and time seems to fold in on itself. “The problem with dailiness — how to write the day when it escapes us,” the author wonders, and then many pages later, she comes to this conclusion: “All we can do is wonder over this imaginary solitude of others, what others do when they are alone, how they deal with the vastness and ephemerality of the day, which I think for me is increasingly the meaning of and crisis of art.”
Time is a major theme in the book, the elusiveness of it, the need to capture it. It expands in the summertime when the narrator isn’t working as an adjunct, and contracts during the school year, what with so many hours spent commuting to different campuses and teaching students. In order to create, writers need to be out in the world visiting museums and in cafes or restaurants and observing people on the subway, but they also need their own privacy, the domestic space for work to accumulate. As the narrator’s belly grows with her first pregnancy, her husband calls their child a “beautiful parasite,” something that resonates with her. “That’s what an artist is to me,” she muses, suggesting one needs to feed off of others in order to exist.
But it’s the way an artist consumes that matters — not just the act itself. The narrator quotes from May Sarton quoting Simone Weil: “Attention is prayer.” The level of detail the narrator devotes to describing a stray cat or something less concrete like self-doubt feels sacred, as does the equal attention she gives to the smallest of things. “Bring me the exigencies of the day, I say,” Zambreno writes. “The garbage can and the neighbors and the vomit and the slowly read [Clarice] Lispector. I am far more interested in that.”
“Drifts” is a stunning book that shows how life can be pregnant with possibility, even and especially when we feel isolated. All we have to do is pay attention.
By Kate Zambreno
Riverhead, 336 pp., $26
Michele Filgate is the editor of “What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About” and a contributing editor at Literary Hub.