O Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno
What do you say about an American gospel that beats the shit out of you?
It's come up before, of course, though it's been a while. Gone is William S. Burroughs, gone is Hubert Selby, Jr., gone is Kathy Acker. Now we have Bret Easton Ellis, who's as original as a porn DVD and as punk rock as a Walmart. We have shock, but never for a reason. I have to mention Acker again; it's almost sacrilegious to think of anyone being like her, but some of those who loved her have been hoping, secretly, for an heiress or heir. So enter Kate Zambreno, who is as much Acker as she is Woolf, as much Angela Carter as she is Elfriede Jelinek. (These are the four names most closely associated with Zambreno, and with good reason -- it's almost impossible to read O Fallen Angel, her brilliant 2010 novel, without thinking of Zambreno as a perfected synthesis, but a wholly original one, of all four of those authors.)
I'll try not to make too much of the fact that I wrote, accidentally, “holy” for “wholly” in that last sentence. But you can't get around it -- O Fallen Angel is a gospel and a fairy tale, and it is uniquely American. If I were religious, I'd be tempted to call Zambreno a prophet. I'm not, but I'm tempted to anyway. Countless writers have attempted what Zambreno does here -- a beautiful, unique, angry-as-fuck satire about contemporary America, wrapped up in a wrenching family psychodrama. But in the last decade, the attempts were either too subtle or too dumb. There is no subtlety in this book; there is a good deal of enraged fuck-you bravado, cut with almost unbearable sadness and desolation. And every note of it is perfect.
There are three people here, or three kind-of people, the jury's out on at least one of them, maybe more. Mommy is a midwestern housewife -- she's fat, with a fat husband, a son who's probably going to be fat once his own kid grows up. The family eats too much. They buy too much. They are xenophobic and racist and homophobic. They think of themselves as happy. They are not.
Maggie is her daughter, her estranged daughter, living in the big city. She is bipolar, drug-addicted, suicidal. She is a fairy tale heroine. Or as Mommy would say, with her breathless exclamations, She is a fairy tale heroine! She is a good girl! Maggie:
always lets them get at least to third base which is finger-fucking
usually she lets them get to home plate
And Sleeping Beauty was slipped a mickey and raped. Or she just let him inside of her because he was pleading and insistent and she wanted him to call her again.
And Sleeping Beauty wanted to be liked and had terribly low self-esteem so when he said that she was the prettiest girl in all the land she gave him a blow-job, even though her jaw locks sometimes.
And Sleeping Beauty pretended to be asleep but really she died inside and then she let Prince Charming cum between her tits and in her hair as he breathed Yeah Bitch Take It.
And Sleeping Beauty didn't make him wear a condom and now she has pelvic inflammatory disease and crotch-itch and genital warts, but oh, the memories.
And then there's Malachi, about whom it's hard to say anything. He is a fallen angel and a confused prophet; he could well be the author here, he could stand for her. He is named after, one supposes, Malachi Ritscher, who four years ago burned himself to death in Chicago, protesting the Iraq War.
So, three voices: denial (Mommy), despair (Maggie), and something unnameable that somehow combines the two and their opposites (Malachi). It is not an easy book to explain. It is a very easy book to feel. Mommy disowns Maggie; Maggie disowns life; Malachi disowns the world. It's a lot like listening to three operas at once, all dissonant and frenetic and sad, and not being able to turn any of them off. O Fallen Angel is the angriest book I've read in years, possible since Stephen Wright's Going Native, which shares nothing with this novel stylistically, but feels like the same plaintive, enraged, confused scream.
And like all anger, it's impossible to synthesize or summarize; it loses everything in translation. I've spent months thinking about it nearly every day, and I've largely given up on trying to explain it. It's how you feel at your worst moments; it's less a book than a Molotov cocktail of a story. It will make you think of Acker, sure, but it's a different angel with a different harp. It's something only Kate Zambreno could have done, and it's brave and scared and indispensable.
O Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno