Friday, May 07, 2010

Zambreno's O Fallen Angel

In the past few weeks I’ve read two excellent recently published books--Kate Zambreno’s O Fallen Angel and Clayton Eshleman’s Anticline--and I thought I would discuss them on the blog. At a first glance, the two books seem extremely different, one being a dark novel on the suburbs and the other a collection of poems about the violently metamorphic nature of thought and experience (Eshleman’s continual theme), but both books do share a love for excess, for the grotesque, and both are wonderfully free of the strictures of good taste. I’ll write about Zambreno’s book in this post, and about Eshleman’s book early next week.

It is tempting to read Zambreno’s novel as a satire--and the blurbs on her book suggest that we should--but the text actually has little of the cool comic detachment found in such satirists as Swift and Godard and Flannery O’Conner, that sense that we are looking through a microscope at the lives of various characters. Instead, O Fallen Angel is more of a grotesque parade of certain social “types” and clichés taken to their furthest degree. The book reminds me of early Robert Crumb, a great deal of Jeff Koons, and even some of John Waters, other artists fascinated by the kitschy, grotesque underbelly of American culture. And like those artists, Zambreno finds this kitsch exhilarating. The overriding tone of the novel is oddly joyful; and while the book is very funny, it's not coolly so--in fact, there is nothing cool or classical about this book at all, and the novel in general brings to my mind certain Dogma 95 films where the camera plunges right into the action, making it purposely difficult to get our bearings. There are no establishing shots here.

The most vivid charater in the book is Mommy--though to call her a character is misleading. Rather, she’s the demonstration of the Mommy-principle. She consists of many of the cultural associations that we have of suburban American womanhood from the past fifty years: she loves the color pink (“Think pink! Don’t think at all!”), she’s largely a-sexual, she prides herself on her housekeeping skills, and she believes children should be thoroughly shielded from the world as well as themselves (“It’s best for grandbabies to sit still or they might hurt themselves!”). If anything, there’s something surreally retro about her in our world of Desperate Housewives and Cougar Town, television shows whose humor is premised on how little the sexually confident and stylish suburban female leads have in common with the June Cleaver archetype, and Martha Stewart, whose image relies heavily on her being the uber-mother or grandmother, but who no one, either defenders or detractors, would describe as being docile. Zambreno’s Mommy is a Mommy of cultural free-fall, an American Mommy certainly, but neither exactly of the past nor exactly of the present.

An example of this not-quite-present-not-quite-past quality can be seen in an early passage in the novel that discusses the Mommy’s rising obesity, and the love of butter that is to blame. “Butter in everything!” the Mommy thinks. “Butter and lard! That’s the American way!” A more modern suburban mother would seemingly spread margarine or some other highly processed “fat” on everything; most of the recent health gurus have been trying to get us to go back to butter and lard. But Zambreno, like John Waters, is especially attracted and repulsed by the 50’s image of the mother because, again like Waters, she’s interested in the suburbs at their most hauntingly grotesque. And the association of “Mommy” with “butter” is so strong that Zambreno takes it on anyway, regardless of its retro-ness (or maybe even because of it). And yet she isn’t purely of the 50’s either. She shops at Sam’s Club and names her dog after Laci Peterson. The Mommy here, then, is a POP Mommy, and I see this book as a whole as not so much a condemnation of the suburbs, but rather the suburbs (circa 1951--the present) made into POP art. A few months ago, I wrote a post about how I considered Chelsey Minnis’ Bad Bad to be a POP poetry collection: I see Zambreno’s novel as a prose equivalent to that type of writing. (As I mentioned in that earlier essay, I by no means intend POP here to be a derogatory term. I mean it in the spirit of Deleuze when he said his philosophy was a POP philosophy. POP as a way of writing that doesn’t burrow “deep” but instead is frantically making connections, creating surface effects, and then moving on--a rhizometic method of writing.)

The other characters are POP types too--types written with such force that they become gargoyles. Mommy’s daughter Maggie, for instance, is a “good Catholic Midwestern girl,” and the fallen angel of the title. She leaves her suburban home for the wilds of the city, where she sleeps with brutal young men who look like Marlon Brando and begins to experiment with drugs. She is a slightly older version of Natalie Wood’s iconic Judy in Rebel Without a Cause. Like previous suburban runaways, Maggie feels hollow and alienated. But Zambreno raises the volume to this pain, making it almost Beckett-like in both its extremity and its inclination toward self-satire. She writes, “Maggie is a public wound…O a more tortured soul than Maggie there never was.” She later interestingly thinks, “How lonely it is for Maggie to be so adapted to disguising her SECERT SELF.” And the fact that “secret self” is in bold seems to imply that there is no “secret self” here in the realist sense, but rather the “secret self” certain characters torment themselves over in particular types of melodrama. Not to belabor a point, but it’s a POP “secret self.”

Books like this sometimes fall between the cracks, and I hope this one doesn’t. Some readers, who don’t pick up on the suburban POP-gothic sensibility of this book, might find the characters too familiar; other readers who simply want a book to attack suburban lifestyles, SUV’s, red state mentalities, and other soft targets could overlook where the real energy of the book is coming from--i.e. its wonderful Crumbian/Koonsian eye for the acutely ugly, the kitschy, and the American grotesque.


Blogger Kate Durbin said...

This is an excellent read of Zambreno's book.

11:46 AM  

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