Kate Zambreno’s latest work of autofiction, Drifts, is a novel about the process of writing a novel, or, at least, the process of thinking about one. The narrator, a lightly-fictionalized version of Zambreno, ekes out a living as an adjunct professor as she attempts to write a novel, Drifts, “that contains the energy of thought.” This is a project that largely eludes her, despite the amount of time she spends thinking – about her dog, masturbation, escaping to the country, the miserable life of the adjunct, and Rilke, whose own biography punctuates the contemporary events of the novel. Rilke functions as an imperfect guide for the narrator, whose ambition of a diarisitic novel is not dissimilar from Rilke’s only work of fiction. Her interest in Rilke’s process is both aspirational and cautionary, and our interest in her process becomes the same as the novel unfolds.
While she delays finishing her novel, the narrator directs her considerable attention elsewhere. She catalogues the quiet habits of her dog, Genet, and worries about a neighborhood stray cat. She processes the trauma of a home invasion and the pain of her especially gory period. She re-watches Chantal Akerman’s movies on a loop instead of writing the tribute to Akerman that she has promised to an anthology. This focus on the mundane is not an escape from the narrator’s novelistic pursuits, but their source. Her intellectual world straddles both the quotidian and the esoteric, and it is this balance that creates the novel’s fascinating topography – one in which the significance of material details is constantly shifting along with the narrator’s state of mind.
Zambreno isn’t shy about stating Drifts’ goals and this openness about her project amounts to a form of accountability for the novel, which roams but never strays. The novel’s digressions are, at their least potent, educational, and at their best, truly delightful. Zambreno is not afraid to chase the tail of an idea, but she rarely pursues it to the point of conclusion. She doesn’t need to. Her interest is in the buzzy hive of the “vast referentiality” – the process of looking at one thing and recalling another – and not the meaning that can be extracted from these experiences. The novel is better for letting us wonder.
Managing this magpie-like assortment of ideas and references takes a great deal of original thought and phrasing. Zambreno has both. Her sentences are lucidly beautiful: clearly articulated, never over-reaching. Crucially, she is also very funny, even – or perhaps especially – when her subject matter is not. On menopause, she writes: “I was finally coming to terms, living here, with becoming a hag, which was becoming invisible…Perhaps being a hag was like being a hermit – there was a grace and severity to this vocation.”
Drifts wears its influences on its sleeve. The literary landscape of the novel is divided between the canon of dead white men – Rilke, Barthes, Sebald, and Walser – and Zambreno’s women contemporaries – Danielle Dutton, Bhanu Kapil, and Sofia Samatar. While she turns to the women for compassion, or commiseration, depending on the state of her writing, the narrator seems to have only male literary guides from whom to derive a sense of her project. Her relationship to these influences is complicated in the later portions of the novel, when an unexpected pregnancy forces the narrator, and by extension her writing, to turn inward toward the female body. This pivot is one that the narrator laments openly: “I wanted a life devoted to reading and thinking and writing – something like a monastic existence – and now this is its opposite…I feel so far apart from my hermit-bachelors, as if my body has betrayed me.”
The advent of the narrator’s pregnancy marks a distinct shift in the novel’s tenor and pace. If the earlier sections of the novel are driven by the need to write about and amidst real life, then the later portions are motivated by the ways in which writerly pursuits are grounded in the economics of the real world. Annoyances of the profession – demanding editors, paltry adjunct salaries, arrogant department heads – become threats to the narrator and her unborn child. The impending deadline for her manuscript becomes non-negotiable as she preps for the baby’s arrival – as if she is trading one form of nurturing for another. Although the stakes feel higher in these scenes, I missed the freedom of the writing in the earlier passages, the experience of ambling alongside a curious mind. Before the pregnancy, the motive of the novel seems to be to ask as many questions as come to mind, but once the real world intrudes, the novel’s questions boil down to one: whether or not the narrator will finish Drifts. (Given that the reader holds a copy of Drifts in their hands, this question is answered before it is ever really asked).
It is easy to accept Drifts as an imperfect novel because it does not attempt to convince us otherwise. The book seems intent upon tearing down the veil of inscrutability that so often surrounds the authorial process and that occludes the stages of boredom, blockage, and ambivalence that complicate a novel’s many drafts, leading us to believe that great books simply spring into the world in a non-negotiable form. The pleasure of Drifts is in its messiness – its indulgence of excess, its meandering and randomness. As mundane as it all seemed, it thrilled me.