Kate Zambreno’s head is haunted in equal measure by ghosts of men and ghosts of women. The men are the same ghosts who haunt most ambitious young writers: Fitzgerald, Bowles, Eliot — the canon, the white guys who lord above us all from their unimpeachable places in history. The women are the wives and writers who lived in the shadows of those men, women who were in many ways sacrificed by history in order to make the canon burn brighter. Those ghosts, the men and women in Zambreno’s head, are continually playing out their struggle, over and over again. From a certain perspective, it looks like war. From another, it’s just life, another unremarkable demonstration of the way things happen.
Heroines is a bookshelf’s worth of nonfiction books layered one over the other. We begin with a memoir of Zambreno. She’s a young wife who makes the difficult choice to move to a place (actually two places — first Akron, Ohio, and then Asheville, North Carolina) where she has no roots or prospects, because her husband lands a coveted academic librarian job there. She feels resentment as she reads about glitzy Paris and the glamorous Lost Generation. She feels shame over the resentment. And then she feels sympathy, and then outrage, for the women whose lives were shoved aside for some greater cause. Heroines is a wild spray of paragraphs scattered across every page; sometimes they follow a narrative, sometimes they don’t. Zambreno shifts between brief history lessons, bursts of self-pity, angry tirades, and desperate attempts to correct the historical record on behalf of women like T. S. Eliot’s wife, Vivian, who suffered mental distress and was thrown aside by the poet:
It has been painted, by Eliot’s biographers, that Viv was in fact the vampire who sucked Tom dry. Tom. Poor Tom. Peter Ackroyd: “I believe he went toward her with a kind of child-like trust.” Another biography: “Eliot met the girl who was to plow up, harrow, and strip his life to the bone.” The femme fatale, the succubus. The castrating female.
Zambreno laments that while F. Scott Fitzgerald gets to have pinned his harpoon into the Great American Novel, poor Zelda Fitzgerald’s writing is remembered not as “the American Dream, perhaps, but the Frivolous Girl Dream.” She rages against the silly social conditions that stymie all women, and therefore all female writers: “These men lost their looks or never had them, and it never once stopped them from writing. I’m sure Paul Bowles never looked at his ass and worried that he looked like a stuffed sausage in his skinny jeans.”
The shadows fall thick and heavy on women: Anaïs Nin. Eve. Salome. Simone de Beauvoir. Zambreno herself. She assembles a legion of women smothered by marriage. In her enthusiasm, her style often devolves into something that feels like notes scratched out on paper in the course of doing research in a library: “Who Are You? — the title of Anna Kavan’s haunting inquiry into the loss of the self in marriage. Jean Rhys wished she had thought of the title herself for Wide Sargasso Sea.” But at least we have some works by Nin and Rhys and de Beauvoir. Zambreno ruefully notes: “Often I think not of the works that have been written, but those that never were.”
Before you decide to tell Zambreno to snap out of her historical funk and move to the present, where things are different, consider this passage, when she meets with a young male writer she knew in college, who is on the verge of publishing what everyone expects to be a Very Important Book:
He tells me his work will be the longest first-person novel EVER. We discuss the respective length of Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Infinite Jest, War and Peace, etc. He is pulling out his cock and comparing it with those writers with whom he will be compared. (I will be compared to nobody, I think, I am sent into an existential crisis when I get home, and for weeks afterwards.)
Zambreno barely manages to mention that she has published two books of her own, but they’re not considered Important by the publishing industry or academia or even, on some level, by Zambreno herself. The old biases are alive and well. The men still go out together in their jolly hunt for the Great American Novel while the women stay home and do less important work. “Canon actually comes from a Greek word for measuring rod,” Zambreno writes.
Heroines does go on a bit too long. But suddenly, and without almost any warning, the book as we know it whiplashes to a stop and Zambreno launches into an inspirational speech that recontextualizes all the work we’ve seen before, tracing a clear path to female bloggers at work today. She ennobles the past and future at the same time, by showing that the transition from Nin’s diaries to confessional Tumblrs is not so outlandish. There’s a whole separate canon worth looking at, Zambreno exults.
Originally published at www.thestranger.com.