O Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno. Chiasmus Press. 164 pp., $14.95.
Aspects of Flatness
At FC2′s 2008 summer conference, “the Writer’s Edge,” Lidia Yuknavitch ran a workshop discussing traditional aspects of the novel and their undoing. Psychological realism, she noted, is “the monkey on the experimental writer’s back”: the hardest belief from which to liberate fiction is that it cannot function without credible, psychologically realistic characters. Yuknavitch is a founder and publisher of Chiasmus Press, whose annual first book contest is also titled “Undoing the Novel.” Kate Zambreno’s O Fallen Angel was the recipient of the 2008 prize.
“The monkey on the back”—or was it a monkey wrench thrown somehow, or an elephant in the experimental writer’s room . . . ? It doesn’t matter: her meaning in any case is clear. Clichés have this insistent, insidious relation to meaning—their literal meaning effaced, but their function profoundly entrenched: we can’t help but think in them, are condemned to these grooves.
O Fallen Angel is an exercise in cliché: in character flattened into archetype, even stereotype, even cliché. The narration is in the third person, divided into sections concerned with three characters: Mommy, Maggie, Malachi. In each section the narrator offers gestures of close third-person, tossing up jetsam of the characters’ inner voices and daily reality, but also maintains a critical distance, a distance most often mocking in its criticism. The characters are exaggerations of recognizable American clichés: the conservative, Midwestern, fat, sexually repressed, “family values”–loving (thus hypocritical) housewife; the “fallen angel” of a daughter, fled the nest to become a seemingly superficial liberal, a psychology major at a private school who’s now a waitress, is bipolar, drug using, promiscuous, seeking out sexual degradation; and the homeless prophet, paranoid and destructive, “insightful” in his perceptions but futile in his actions. To illustrate, an excerpt of one of Maggie’s sections:
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 on her face 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.
Don’t all little girls have rape fantasies? Maggie is in a dark wood and the wolf comes up to her and he slams her face into a tree. He chops her to pieces, the bad, bad, wolf, because she is a bad, bad girl.
Fairytales demonstrate possibilities for flat characters; in invoking them overtly, Zambreno (loudly, in keeping with the general tone) offers both a tradition by which to read her characters-as-archetypes and a commentary on the power of cliché. Like Maggie, girls do grow up thinking of themselves as princesses, trained in these stories of Prince Charming, these trite, repressive gender roles. All of us are subject to clichés and the clichéd characters that populate our internal world, arrived there from fairytale, from parable, even from the grand tradition of fiction, thus inescapably from reality as we know it. Infected by cliché, we then embody it.
When cliché is welcomed into fiction, no longer dogmatically condemned, what possibilities open anew and what are foreclosed? Zambreno’s exaggerated simplicity avoids the sleight-of-hand delusions of psychological realism, but at the expense of the empathy we feel for complex characters. This approach affords us deep readings of cliché, an exploration of cliché as a real force: that when fiction insists on depth in character it ignores the fact of shallowness. It allows the novel such statements as, “There is so much suffering in the world Maggie knows but Maggie can only really feel her own pain”—a sentence typical in its flat “telling,” its judgment on hypocrisy but also its feeling of truth, the sort of wisdom a fairytale or parable might offer, simple but profound. Zambreno is centrally concerned with superficiality and its relation to the limits of empathy, the inaccessibility of others’ suffering. Her treatment of her characters embodies this concern: the characters here are flat enough that the narrator remains a plane removed from them, and we readers a plane yet further. O Fallen Angel investigates superficiality and empathy both as defining concerns of fiction—which (traditionally?) aims to make fictive lives real enough to allow us to imagine the pain of another—and as issues of acute political concern in contemporary America.
The “Mommy” sections in particular comment on what we could call real instances of shallowness with real consequences, through an abundance of moments like this one:
[Daddy] commutes to the dark bad city every morning he wakes up at 5am so Mommy can live in her Dreamhouse in the country far far away from all the scary city people alright let’s just say it a whisper the scary (black) people they keep on coming closer and closer we keep on moving farther and farther away.
Note again the flat presentation, the phenomenon of “white flight” presented literally as though thought by an individual. Yet Mommy is both something less than an individual, and more, a representation of forces at work on but also perpetuated by individuals in contemporary America. In the distance between its narrator and characters, the novel depicts the idea of “Two Americas”: the America where Mommy lives and from which Maggie tries to escape, and the America where the narrator lives, able to see the hypocrisy of the first, to present it with a straightforwardness and judgment that deny it the possibility of sympathy.
The novel seems to want to offer social criticism, then, but this dynamic too is compromised by cliché. The narrator/critic is “clichéd” in that she is able only to perceive clichés, and her commentary too is superficial, has only a measure more depth than that which she criticizes. The narrator’s wordplay, for instance, is usually pedestrian; most of the jokes feel like cheap shots, unfunny. Cell phone towers are “towers of Babble”; the nuclear family is immediately linked to the nuclear bomb; when Maggie reads Sartre we are told that she “feels nausea too but perhaps it’s just love pangs or hunger pangs”; Mommy’s opposition to abortion is articulated by her in lines such as “murdering babies is bad.”
I read the novel with the assumption that this second flatness was also deliberate, so that the novel offers twinned parody, of both Americas, conservative parents and liberal children. The impression, then, is of inescapable flatness, everywhere. But even if deliberate, this approach still feels inert. The work suffers from a lack of momentum that I found hard to overcome: ending one Mommy or Maggie or Malachi section, there seemed little need to begin the next, since it would only play out again the same commentary in the same language, manifest in slightly new aspect the stereotypes one already knows. Mommy’s opinions are all of a piece, predictable: homophobic, she is also against abortion and sex out of wedlock; childlike, she fantasizes that her grown daughter will return to the womb or to her pink suburban bedroom, in essence the same. Maggie’s self-destructive behavior culminates in a suicide attempt. Malachi’s delusions about fire and sacrifice and prophecy end more or less as you’d expect. “Maggie writes to fill in her anonymous sketched outline. Maggie is a blank slate,” the novel tells us, then winkingly offers Maggie’s writing, which is also perfectly blank and unoriginal.
This, too, is a flatness—a novel denied trajectory. Interesting to consider, but a little dull to read, and dull not merely in the superficial sense of entertainment denied, but also of a narrative that doesn’t develop, decides to insist rather than—converse? Discover new form within itself? The novel could have been an investigation into flatness, but instead seems more simply an enactment thereof; it has arrived at its conclusions and narrates from the point of that arrival, leaving us, I thought, with less to read on for. As a reader, one also starts to fight against being flattened by the general dynamic—too many lines like “Mommy is not crying for Maggie Mommy is crying tears of self-pity” inevitably feel patronizing, as do the crudely constructed metaphors, always explaining themselves thoroughly, thus losing momentum.
It’s interesting to note that the sentences, while consistently stylized and grammatically irregular, slide away as smoothly and easily as sentences in a plot-driven realist novel. One remembers only a handful on concluding, and these tend to be what James Wood, in praise of traditional realism, calls the “telling and brilliant detail”: that the secret to Mommy’s thanksgiving stuffing is raisins; that Maggie’s “dark mood stabilizer is like a little lentil that stains her fingers red.” These vivid moments do add a more conventional artifice to the characters, but—and I don’t think this is only the monkey on the back speaking—more importantly, they give the narrator an individual shape as well. These traces of individual vision become a welcome relief from a vision that relentlessly admits only cliché.
It seems fair to suggest that a narrative that lampoons stereotype on every level must also be making an implicit argument for the value of individual vision. Why not, then, offer more forms of individuality within the novel itself? One could imagine, for instance, two sections condemned to flatness as Mommy’s and Maggie’s are, while Malachi’s permitted the narrator a richer, more distinctive, less childlike voice. The conclusion that flatness can be, well, too flat does not have to insist on the traditional forms of novelistic development—rather, it wants something new in the place of those forms, arguments positive as well as negative, something that extends flatness into new life.
Hilary Plum is codirector of Clockroot Books and an editor with Interlink Publishing. She’s presently an MFA candidate in fiction at UMass Amherst.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- The Secret River by Kate Grenville I. Though I don’t know much about Australia, its origin seems an irresistible tale, one that begs novelistic retelling, either as a vast metaphor or as a historical panorama. In her new book The Secret River, Kate Grenville chooses the latter approach. The story deals with the colony of New...
- The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch Originally published in 2000, available now in a seamless translation by Bill Johnston, Jerzy Pilch's novel The Mighty Angel is as entertaining and engaging as it is possible to be while candidly revealing the lurid charm at the heart of alcohol addiction....
- In Night’s City by Dorothy Nelson Irish writer Dorothy Nelson’s short novel In Night’s City is the story of a family in which love and abuse can never be uncoiled. First published in Ireland in 1982, the book is now being released in the United States as part of the Dalkey Archive Press’s Irish Literature Series...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Hilary Plum