Early in Drifts, the narrator wonders: “How to fold time into a book?” How to write both the “full and the fleeting sensations. How to capture that? The problem with dailiness — how to write the day when it escapes us.” The result of this poundering, Kate Zambreno’s Drifts, is a novel of notes, scenes, scents, fleeting feelings, emotions, fears — of small waves coming into shore, again and again. Drifts is Kate Zambreno’s third published work of fiction, after her debut O Fallen Angel and her follow-up Green Girl marked Zambreno as both a literary talent to watch and a new intellectual force to admire and envy. Stylistically and thematically, though, Drifts is more of a continuation of Zambreno’s non-fiction work; her new novel is clearly a descendant of works like Heroines, Book of Mutter, and Screen Tests. Zambreno’s nonfiction is undoubtedly marked by a signature style: a narrative that is fragmented, made up of short paragraphs, weaves into conversation references from across literature (and other disciplines), and sets up the personal to become a corpus examined across the pages. It is thrilling to see Zambreno at such a creative peak, and to now apply the tools she has perfected since her debut to the novel form. What is rendered, like her previous fiction and nonfiction, is a work that is hypnotic and contemplative, a magnetic novel that both surprises and puts us in a trance.
Drifts is the story of an unnamed writer at work on a novel quickly reaching its deadline. What is the novel she’s writing about? It’s never quite clear; it could be the one you’re reading, or a project yet-to-be revealed. This creative play and elusive naming of our protagonist further confuses our subject, making it even harder here to say who is writing: is it Zambreno our author or our Zambreno-like protagonist. The protagonist wants to write about time itself — the manner in which temporality can be captured within writing. “Perhaps drift is a sort of form,” she writes, a new form to write through time. It’s her explanation for the diaristic style she takes on, a style preoccupied with the day — with dailiness. Zambreno writes, “The title of the book came from a feeling, and I wanted to write through this feeling. What I wanted to write about was my present tense, which seemed impossible. How can a paragraph be a day, or a day a paragraph?” Drifts is certainly a novel that does that; it drifts, slowly, repeatedly, time becoming both inessential, something to be forgotten, then something that comes rushing in, something to fear, a force marked by slippage. Two unanchored due dates holdfast throughout: the novel’s delivery date, challenged by the author’s own questions of how to truly evoke the nature of time in writing; and the due date of the author’s unexpected pregnancy, a surprise that both upends the novel but also doubles down on Zambreno’s thematic preoccupations with time as it can be captured within writing.
The result is a novel that drifts at moments into auto-fiction — but those familiar with Zambreno will find her stylistic choices remain the same: a writing that is fragmentary, and which strings along referential points from across literature, bringing in Reiner Maria Rilke and Robert Walser, among many others together. By toying with auto-fiction, temporality, and setting up the protagonist against figures like Walser, Drifts becomes a novel about the writing process itself, too. Zambreno expresses her creative frustrations via the protagonist, and the novel becomes one about a writer working through another, which she has written. What is rendered is an intimate entry into one’s creative hitches, hunches, musings, hangups.
Drifts is at its most interesting when the narrator cuts open her desires for her writing, allowing the novel to become a body to be autopsied, writely desires located and excised. She wants a “a small book of wanderings,” “short forms like moods and digressions,” for “art that is like a trance,” a “series of meditations,” “a nervous and diaristic text,” perhaps one that can “contain the energy of the internet, its distracted nature,” a narrative that “deals more with holes than what is filled in,” and one that ultimately evokes “that fleeting feeling in the morning, of possibility.” It’s transcendent in it’s repetitiveness too, in the daily mundanities both captured then charged with transformative potential. The protagonist certainly transforms over the course of the novel (and over the course of Zambreno’s oeuvre). She’s far from a “green girl”: no longer fresh, clumsy, or naive, she is becoming fully formed, to the extent that she even welcomes into the world a new human. Ultimately, this is a novel of intimacies — is this Zambreno’s most intimate work to date? “Drifts is my fantasy of a memoir about nothing. I desire to be drained of the personal. To not give myself away,” Zambreno writes at one point. But the effect is quite the opposite: Zambreno at her most vulnerable.
Over the past few months, Drifts has transformed into quite a different novel than when I first read it. Much of Drifts finds the protagonist in solitude, preoccupied with her daily routine, most of which occurs from within her home. Which is to say, the protagonist of Drifts was already living in a form of isolation the way many of us are now. There’s a comfort in this, in spending time with a character in a similar situation: staying indoors, remaining in contact with close relations through technology, and finding it hard to write (like many of us, right?). And, more significant, the way time seems to have taken on a new form for many of us, as Zambreno conveyed. Like the protagonist in Drifts, I wonder how best to describe time now. It feels like we’ve been given more, and yet, it seems to just rush on by: “it escapes us.” Drifts is both of the moment, and perhaps timeless: a fitting novel to read in our current quarantine, and in those to come.
By Kate Zambreno
Published May 19, 2020