My review of Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter came out yesterday at Necessary Fiction – it begins like this:
A quarter of a way into Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter the following stand-out line surfaces amidst a collage of anecdotes related to memorializing, burial practices, and grief writing:
What does it mean to write what is not there. To write absence.
The line sits on its own, separated out from a preceding block of text commenting on Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary, and it feels, at first, like a standard academic question. A way to frame Zambreno’s thirteen-year project to write about the death of her mother. And it certainly does do this. But its tone and position—that missing question mark, the clarified repetition of the idea of absence, and the white page that engulfs the reader as they finish the weighted word—give these simple sentences all the power of a lament and an entreaty. This isn’t a curious professor posing a rhetorical question to a dispassionate audience, this is the fierce howl of a desire for sense-making.
Grief memoirs are interested in burdened negotiations of this sort because grief is always a plea bargain, an attempt to wring sense from this most senseless of experiences. But here’s the trick: death is senseless in only one definition of that word, meaningless, but it engages the five senses relentlessly. So what does it mean to write what is not there? That missing question mark in Zambreno’s line places her sentence somewhere between a defeated query and a brave gesture to the impossible. And she doesn’t mention writing about what is not there, she is interested in the verb, the act of writing and what that very act might mean. In this way, the question is also about the asker. She could be saying_, what does it mean that I am writing what is not there_. And in this, immediately and cleverly, Zambreno embraces the conflicted dichotomy of absence versus presence.
You can read the entire review here.