Nonfiction Review: “Heroines” by Kate Zambreno

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The word to describe “Heroines” is “chameleonic.”  You know there’s a book in your field of vision, you hold its spine in your hands and caress the pages. But just as the eponymous lizard disguises itself to blend into the patterns of tree bark and rock face, so too does Kate Zambreno’s first volume of nonfiction masquerade in a number of patterns and motifs. The author of the novels “Green Girl” and “O Fallen Angel” began the work that became “Heroines” in 2009 as the blog “Frances Farmer is My Sister,” drawing together parallels between her own lives as a writer, a woman, and a woman writer. “Heroines” then falls into the newly burgeoning tradition of literary-history-as-memoir, joining such recent texts as Alison Bechdel’s “Are You My Mother?” and Grant Morrison’s “Supergods.” (The chameleon shifts, climbs down from the exposed tree root and sets foot on a slab of cracked dirty granite.)

Or it didn’t. Now it’s a work of literary analysis and historiography tracking down the shadow lives of Jean Rhys and Zelda Fitzgerald in the pages of Stop Smiling magazine and the Rain Taxi Review. (The movement of the tail gives it away as it slides into the apple-green grass.)

No, it isn’t. It’s a crime-scene analysis, detective witchcraft, forensic meditation. Summoning the ghosts from chalk-circle outlines to point bloody fingers at the guilty, to the husbands and doctors who suppressed their words, suppressed them under the guise of the still young and reckless science of psychoanalysis. Zelda burns to death in her asylum bed, but the cards say the murder happened much earlier in the Fitzgerald domicile, with her husband’s endless reiterations of “You are not a writer.” How then to read “Heroines?” Lit crit? Tell-all? Paraliterary thriller? The way to read “Heroines” is to open your eyes and move your line of sight across the little squiggles of black ink on white paper, turning patterns of serif and kerning into thoughts in your head, thoughts that came out of Kate Zambreno’s head and became eight years worth of keystrokes and cut-and-pastes to reforge blog entries and freelance articles into a book. There’s a pathway, you just think it’s a labyrinth because you don’t know where it’s going. But Kate is there, hidden in the pages, disguised as the narrative persona “Kate Zambreno;” your own personal Virgil. “Heroines” is a written text; it won’t interact with you until you read it, but when it does you find yourself not reading but listening as Zambreno tells you all the secrets and lets you in on the big one: That “Heroines” isn’t a work about the dead past, but a call-to-arms for the revolutionary act of shutting out the voices, external and internal, that say “Be silent and still, obey; you cannot be an artist, you cannot be a heroine.” (Greg Baldino)

“Heroines”
By Kate Zambreno
Semiotext(e), 312 pages, $17.95

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