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The Art of Staying Home

Kate Zambreno’s novel “Drifts” brilliantly evokes a hazy state of self-isolation.

Chaloner Woods/Getty Images

Writers make for remarkably talented shut-ins and isolates. They’re famous for it—Proust sealed in his cork-lined room, Dickinson in her attic, Thoreau in his DIY cabin, relying, or so he wrote, only on himself. The life of the writer is narcissistically introverted, requiring a constant interrogation of fleeting thoughts and emotions ideally undertaken in a closed-off room of one’s own. Writers are brains floating in space, living their truer lives in the virtual space of the page, existing in imaginary worlds. 

DRIFTS: A NOVEL by Kate Zambreno
Riverhead Books, 336 pp., $26.00

Or at least that was one cliché image of writerly exceptionalism. If the writing life involves sitting at home, pursuing random urges, indulging in deep research of minutiae, and corresponding from afar with friends and intimates, then Covid-19 quarantine has created millions of literary superstars. Quarantine is the collective experience of nonexperience, and yet the pandemic is still so all-encompassing that it demands to be recorded, whether in diary entries, social media posts, or just tallies of the endless days passed. 

Kate Zambreno’s new novel, Drifts, was not written with a pandemic in mind, of course. But the pandemic might be the best context in which to read it. An autofictional portrayal of stasis, indecision, and the difficulty of living in a civilization that seems to have passed its expiration date some years previously, the novel already exists in a hazy state of self-isolation. Reading it now, you don’t have to be a published writer or an adjunct professor to identify deeply with the author-narrator as she works from home eternally supine, wanders the confines of her neighborhood, takes photographs of her dog, watches YouTube videos, and tries to figure out if creating anything is possible. This spiky book, with its fragmented prose and Sebaldian black-and-white photos, has become unexpectedly relatable.  

Relatability is not Zambreno’s goal: This is a depiction of a life committed to art to an extreme, almost unbearable degree. She focuses on questions of how to maintain inspiration and artistic productivity, structuring everything else around the creative practice—neglecting the impossible bureaucracy of academia to prioritize writing that doesn’t happen either, justifying endless rereadings of favored authors, seeing herself in an angel in an Albrecht Dürer print. There seems to be nothing that cannot be part of the work of writing. The result is not so different from any other slow, desperate search for a way to live within a set of limits: the constant need for new strategies, ways to trick yourself into action, or excuses for another short-term failure. If we’re lucky enough to be working at home—and not out on the front lines—our distress, like the narrator’s, is caused not by some traditionally novelistic dramatic break but by the persistent grinding of the terrible everyday.

Drifts is a study in staying home too much. “Stuck on the couch, on days I can’t manage to structure.” “So often now I want to weep—what am I mourning?” “The craving for a new show to binge, how it can be a way to structure the day, or become lost in it.” “The problem with dailiness—how to write the day when it escapes us.” “That desire I feel, for art that is like a trance.” The last is an apt description of the book itself, which maintains a gentle and yet compulsive flow, like the autoplay of the next Netflix episode. As Zambreno writes, “Drifts is my fantasy of a memoir about nothing.” 

Part diary and part Künstlerroman, Drifts skips around, swapping one subject for the next when a thought trails off, when attention or concentration flags. These musings include running biographies of solitary writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Franz Kafka, and Robert Walser, who maintained his own quarantine in a sanatorium. Other strands take on domestic and work life: a sweet portrait of the narrator’s dog, Genet (who is the best dog in autofiction since Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend); the precarity and emotional drain of adjunct professorship; struggles with hierarchy in the publishing industry; and determining what the book at hand will be, as well as the odd bloggy yoga class anecdote. There’s an improvisatory quality to the text, like a wet-painted brushstroke.

A lot of the time, the narrator is restlessly wandering the internet, writing emails, googling herself, and avoiding news to stave off “ambient political depression.” She conducts her life digitally, as many nonessential workers have had to do lately, physically alone but virtually communicating across a wide network. This is a newly mainstream kind of consciousness (the Very Online), the texture of which is rarely evoked so well in writing—the simultaneous overflow and undernourishment of information, the way in which just surfing can be fulfilling as a form of at-home flânerie. 

The last third of Drifts describes a pregnancy and the eventual choice to have a child. The narrator’s anxiety about the child’s impact on her independent, artistic life is mitigated by the transformation of that process into art in the form of the book. The entirety of the text is split into stylish fragments, longer than Jenny Offill’s but looser than Eula Biss’s; each new passage begins with a soothing blank space from the top of the page. As the narrator’s pregnancy progresses, the fragments get shorter and shorter and the text draws closer to real time, symptoms of an increasingly fractured attention but also reminiscent of the blankness of too many days stuck at home, when you lose the ability to remember the alternative or to think much at all. 

Zambreno is a collagist, interspersing the intimacy of her own life and routine (via the narrator) with those of other artists, late and contemporary, her direct correspondents and unseen collaborators. Though there is no traditional narrative arc to Drifts, the book resolves through the refinement of a sensibility. If her confusion hasn’t abated, the narrator at least becomes more committed to the life she has chosen to live, the nagging questions subdued. She accepts “the grief and ongoingness of the everyday,” as Zambreno describes the atmosphere of a Japanese film.

Isolation can breed self-obsession, an intellectualized narcissism that the genre of autofiction often wrestles with. Each of the writers under that label—Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner, Karl Ove Knausgaard, et al.—practices a slightly different method of self-exposure. But all tend to glamorize the trope of the life of the writer and the meandering, sometimes bumbling, journey toward producing a piece of literary art. Lerner famously opened 2014’s 10:04 with a meeting with his agent in a swank restaurant to discuss his six-figure book deal. Across their serial novels, Knausgaard and Cusk recount endless press tours and talks and conferences because they are internationally famous authors.

Zambreno presents something more familiar and less self-aggrandizing—not the enfant terrible, nor the major iconoclast, but the struggling culture worker sometimes unsure if the art is worth the sacrifice. Drifts alludes to Lerner as “a prominent writer of so-called autofiction” who wins a MacArthur grant. The narrator identifies herself (and her friends) within the genre but not with Lerner’s confidence in spitting out novels that seem to document his life as he lives it: “Maybe our work was too much about acknowledging failure, about doubt.” Autofiction has been valorized for its hypnotic domestic details (see Ben Lerner’s 2014 review of My Struggle), but primarily after its male practitioners became famous; women including the same wasn’t deemed so revolutionary. 

Drifts pursues an obsession with the minor, offstage, and ambiguous. The narrator is drawn to the literature of cranky European modernists and to inscrutable figures in her surroundings—a stray cat who appears and disappears; an elderly woman who lives nearby, or might be on vacation, or might be dead. Everything is liable to vanish. In that way, the book has less in common with Lerner’s theatrics than Rivka Galchen’s similarly diaristic Little Labors or one of that book’s sources, Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, which Drifts also references. There’s a canon of the minor, too.

As intricate and finely tuned as this kind of writing is, it runs up against its limits fairly quickly. Writers can do nothing at all for years on end and no one will so much as notice. The book’s limited perspective makes Drifts claustrophobic, a claustrophobia that is part of the effect but can be frustrating nonetheless. There’s a willful disengagement with the world, a turning away from collective politics toward the cultivated individualism of the artistic practice.

Zambreno addresses recognizable problems: the dysfunction of the American health care and medical system, particularly for women; the lack of meaningful social support for the arts; the challenge of defining a family for yourself; and the drudgery of making a living from temporary gig labor. But if Drifts shows solidarity in these issues, it’s more with other artists—posed as uniquely sensitive humans—than with other kinds of precarious workers. The narrator feels guilty for lying down with her laptop while her cleaner cleans, but not much more than that, in much the same way Lerner left activist politics in 10:04 to an Occupy protester for whom the author-narrator cooks a meal. The highly educated, observant autofictional protagonist adopts a knowing attitude toward politics but is not particularly moved to participate; not when the consolations of art and middle-class comforts are on offer. 

The general experience of existing in a state of doubt or unknowing and moving through it, living with it day after day until it dissipates, might be the most resonant quality of Drifts during the pandemic. At one point, the narrator is reading Walser and looking at Dürer when her father calls her for help from the hospital. She doesn’t know what is going to happen to him or what actions she must take; everything around her becomes an omen or a sign of some sort. Does Dürer’s sixteenth-century melancholia relate to contemporary medical emergencies? “There appears to be a vast referentiality everywhere,” Zambreno writes. “It means nothing, or: it means everything. That this is the mode of collapse.”

The collapse is clear, we feel it. Can anything be done? Ours is not a moment for major actions but for long-term commitment and incremental, minor work, the kind whose success might not show until well into the future—like staying home. As Zambreno observes, uncertainty is communal, something that can still unite instead of divide us: “We saw something beautiful and comradely in our doubt.”