“I have this memory.”
Thus begins Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter, opening with the sort of anecdote you keep deep in you, rarely mentioned yet often recalled, where Zambreno remembers how, at age 18, she went to work for a woman with dementia, to arrange her papers once a week, eventually skipping a week here and there before finally never showing up at all. “How callous,” Zambreno writes. “I just abandoned her. Perhaps this is why she still haunts me.”
It is an effective opening, the complexities of remembering laid bare: the receiver of care cannot remember, while the caregiver cannot forget. The story also serves to introduce the thematics of abandonment and haunting that permeate the book consisting as it does primarily of an attempt to mourn a mother who has died of cancer, a seance of sorts trying to conjure someone from vague memories and faded photographs, a monument to a loved one as well as the documentation of a healing process.
“Writing is how I attempt to repair myself,” Zambreno writes, echoing Barthes’ Mourning Diary, which is cited throughout the work.
Though many artists and writers pass through Zambreno’s book, providing theoretical scaffolding for the swirling memories of a mother long departed, perhaps none looms larger than Roland Barthes, whose Camera Obscura Zambreno keeps returning to. His “it’s true that a photograph is a witness, but a witness of something that is no more,” serves as a chorus that renders futile Zambreno’s attempts to conjure meaning from photographs of her mother, a mother who hated to be photographed. “We never remember the moments our pictures are taken,” Zambreno writes. “We think we do, but we don’t. Photographs do not reflect the turbulence underneath.”
More so even than Zambreno’s previous work Heroines, the formalist underpinnings of Book of Mutter bring to mind a collage — a literal one in this case, as a photograph of Zambreno’s mother is put next to a screenshot from Barbara Loden’s Wanda, amidst photos of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. But mostly, it is a multitude of (to us unseen) family photographs that are dissected. “I go through my box of photographs,” Zambreno writes, “the two of us on my graduation from college. A few years later — me with my mother when I’m taking a master’s degree. She is wearing the same cream dress with flowers. The same cream dress with flowers that —. The same cream dress with flowers (I can’t, not yet).”
The author’s failure to tell the story of the cream dress and the insistence to keep this failure recorded in the book is a recurring method throughout Mutter: a paragraph about a pair of pants that are stained with menstrual blood is followed by the lines “I am going to erase this. This doesn’t belong here.” While a story about an estranged half-sister ends with “So she left and I never saw her again. That’s a lie.” In this way the text embodies the struggle of trying to sculpt truth out of a genre traditionally more suited to the hagiographical (an accurate portrayal of the dead is often indistinguishable from a betrayal after all). It is as though the ritual of writing, and re-writing, becomes a series of attempts to get ever closer to who the mother actually was, a truth that is complicated by each family member attempting to create their own narrative: the estranged half-sister views her mother as a villain-figure responsible for the breakdown of the mother’s first marriage, while the father excises all photographs of her smoking or in her bathing suit, “although in the summer my mother was always wearing her bathing suit, that pink one-piece, showing off her slim figure, tanning. Mowing the lawn, a cigarette dangling from her lips.”
Photographs, of course, cannot present us with the truth of a life lived. In Zambreno’s grasping for meaning, the text and the many empty spaces surrounding the text become the site of a haunting through their relentless attempt to describe that which is no longer there. The parental house, especially, is rife with ghosts: one particularly touching memory is a description of a row of Clinique lipsticks in the parents’ bathroom cabinet, untouched for over a decade, “All shades of brownish rose, all eroded with her lips’ long absence.” A guest room is still named after the estranged sibling, although Zambreno was too young to remember when this was actually a room said sibling lived in, and throughout the text the traces of this sister are scratched out, her absence conspicuous like the heads of ex-lovers cut out of old photographs.
This focus on absence extends to the book’s sources, where Zambreno lists all the references that did not make it into the book, including a history of Illinois’ asylums and a lengthy digression on the Abu Ghraib photographs and the language of torture (which one can only hope will surface in a different form one day). This process is reminiscent of Freud’s theories surrounding trauma, upon which Tom McCarthy expanded in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books: “we’re just jellyfish, replaying the original shock of photosynthesis as we propel ourselves deathward. What’s really interesting about this particular image is that Freud couches it within a larger consideration of those magic writing-pad toys that kids still play with — the ones where the upper, waxy-paper surface can be erased and written over again and again, but the lower, gelatinous one retains all the traces.” Though Book of Mutter is a slim book, what remains of it after thirteen years of revisions gains a certain density, the swathes of empty space around the sentences somehow carrying the traces of all the deleted words. “This is his decisive model for consciousness,” McCarthy continues,“a writing machine scored with the wounds of time.”
“The central fact of my life is that my mother is dead,” Zambreno writes, echoing a line from a biography of the artist Henry Darger. Lingering long after its haunting, incanting final line, Book of Mutter stands as a devastating monument to that central fact.
Kate Zambreno is the author of two novels, O Fallen Angel and Green Girl. She is also the author of the work Heroines (Semiotext(e)). She teaches in the writing programs at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College. She is at work on a series of books about time, memory, and the persistence of art, which includes Book of Mutter and the forthcoming Drifts.
Agri Ismaïl is an Iraq and Sweden-based author. His work has previously appeared in The White Review, The Lifted Brow and 3:AM Magazine, among other places.
Author bio courtesy of The MIT Press.