‘Where Are They Who Went Before? A Review of Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter’, by Ellena Savage


When I was maybe sixteen my father sticky-taped an A4 print-out of Dylan Thomas’ villanelle ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’ on the toilet wall. The famous poem’s two refrains are its title, and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The rage, of course, is directed at the poet’s father’s mortality. At the time, it just seemed cool that Dad liked Dylan Thomas. Now, I wonder if he was trying to instil filial loyalty in my brothers and me. Like, You’ll regret your disobedience when I’m dead, children. As though children don’t constantly dream up the nightmare of their parents’ inevitable departure. As if their lives are not shaped in denial of its truth.

When his mother died, Dad said he felt like he was Julia Roberts in the final scene of August: Osage County. When his father died, Mum told me he spent a lot of time staring at his garden beds. It’s not possible to predict what you will become when you become an orphan. The everything muttered and never uttered may be, for some, too much to come back from.

Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter is an elegy to her own mother who died in excruciating pain from cancer thirteen years prior to the book’s completion. The title comes from Kafka:

Today it occurred to me I did not always love my mother as she deserved and as I could, only because the German language prevented it. The Jewish mother is no “Mutter,” to call her “Mutter” makes her a little comical …

… And also, one can assume, the ‘mutterings’ that hint towards the book’s form. Its final line: “I mutter, mutter, mutter.”

Over two hundred pages and just twenty thousand words, Mutter combines biography and autobiography, art writing, and poetry. It simultaneously sings in protest against the author’s mother’s pain and death, while circling three key texts: Louise Bourgeois’s autobiographical installation Cells, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and the life of visionary, ‘outsider’ artist Henry Darger. But whilst these texts are explicitly called upon throughout the book, Mutter is evidently influenced by a rich and diverse bibliography. Its hot grief anger is suggestive of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, and its intense interiority evokes Nathalie Sarraute’s Childhood. Formally, Zambreno nods to the bathetic staccato of Claudia Rankine’s prose, and the liminality of Bhanu Kapil’s work across genres (the latter of whom is named in the acknowledgements).

The kind of book that Mutter is is often labelled by marketing departments as genre-resistant, or ‘uncategorizable’, which is just how Zambreno’s distributor, MIT Press, describes it. These terms are useful in that they assist the commercial proliferation of this kind of literature. As in, I might buy this book for a friend who has lost a parent, particularly if that friend is amenable to ‘uncategorizable’ literature, i.e. the kind of books that Barack Obama has read lately. These books are not for everyone, and so the specification helps to not alienate friends on their birthdays.

But these terms are also not useful, in that they marginalise what is in fact a genre, or perhaps more accurately a movement of literature that has been active—and deeply influential—for decades.

Perhaps the ‘genre-resistant’ is continually marginalised because it belongs in some way to the feminist, or to the queer, or to the continental – i.e., despicable to Anglo readers.

In her 1988 book Thinking Through the Body, feminist Jane Gallop writes, “The passage between theory and life story is paved by two non-aligned intellectual movements of the seventies – American feminism and French post-structuralism.” She cites its possible origins in two texts: Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. She says that these books “appeared at the moment this American feminist … was dreaming of such an impossible couple.” Coincidentally, I read Thinking Through the Body while road-tripping interstate with my mother towards her mother’s funeral. A complicated scene.

By the nineties, the two movements were clearly intertwined in a number of literary outputs: Duke University feminism, queer theory, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick and the feminist novels surrounding it, buzz-genres popular among undergraduate lit students like ‘autotheory’, ‘fictocriticism’, and ‘autofiction’, whose groundwork partly laid the foundations for the success of contemporary literary superstars like Karl Ove Knausgård, Maggie Nelson, Ben Lerner, and Sheila Heti. More commercially, the melding of the ‘critical’ and the ‘personal’ that is now visible across a vast body of popular arts criticism; the explosion of the intellectual and/or pseudo-scholarly personal essay.

Chris Kraus, who edited Mutter under Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents imprint, is a key actor in ‘legitimising’ this kind of literature, which sits at the edge of theory and life writing or bodily writing. In her 2014 essay ‘The New Universal’ she wrote:

I started the Native Agents series for Semiotext(e) in 1990, when Semiotext(e) was well-known for publishing French theory, with the idea of transferring some of French theory’s legitimacy to some friends in New York, all of them women, who could best be described as post-New York School writers. That is, they wrote about all kinds of things in the first person with a disinterested but always interesting candour.

Writers whose lives and texts embodied the claims about subjectivity that French male theorists were making. And did so with the droll humour that is native to outsiders.

Mutter is unapologetically intellectual, and unapologetically bodily. But while this reader enjoys an intertextual puzzle as much as the next, I found the most compelling threads within Mutter were those bearing witness to the ordinary; sites of lament and also startling beauty. This passage, particularly, demonstrates Zambreno’s descriptive powers:

The lobby of the hospital, that site of perpetual return. Arranged like a living room. The shabby gold lamps. The blood-colored carpeting with psychotic patterns. The grandfather clock. The waxy plants with fingernail moons on the leaves. The earth-colored geometrics in wooden frames. All while stoic nurses in pale blue scrubs hurry to the booming god of the beckoning intercom, through the maze of swinging doors and body-less wheelchairs and dazed patients waiting on beds, peeking out through horizontal bars, refugees of the hospital hallways.

This narrative line, which ruminates on family life and a mother’s devastating illness, is direct and faultless. It is the one which justifies the book’s deep connection to Bourgeois’s Cells – a sprawling installation recreating scenes from the artist’s life in acute detail, which is split up into ‘cells’ that evoke both horror and familiarity. Because only the familiar can contain the seed of horror.

Less convincing, for me, was the line of inquiry into the life of Henry Darger. While Zambreno’s biographical research and writing about Darger is excellent, the comparison between this artist—who was effectively denied a place in society by the trauma of his institutionalisation—and the author’s middle-class mother is tenuous.

The obvious connection is that the elegy is a form that is prompted by the sentiment uni sunt: Where are they? Where are those who went before? The institutionalised, as with those housewives who were deprived of ambition or its fulfilment, are missing from our common histories. This work, then, of biography and autobiography, works towards righting (writing) that injustice. It writes the forgotten mothers and the forgotten artists back into existence.

However, Zambreno pushes too firmly to have this connection appeased. She writes:

I read in a biography of the visionary artist Henry Darger:

The central fact of his life is that his mother died when he was young.

The central fact of his life.

The central fact of my life is that my mother is dead.

She also notes that both Darger and her mother are buried in the same cemetery:

When I first began this project, now over a decade ago, I read in this same biography of Henry Darger that he was buried in a pauper’s grave at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois. The same cemetery where my mother is buried. This fact startles me, catalyzes something.

This is a problem of metaphor, I think. The problem is not that the author is startled by such a revelation; research projects undertaken by obsessive people are usually marked by such ‘startling’ connections. The problem is that, for the reader, a coincidence like this is not strong enough to justify the likening of two people’s lives, especially two people whose lives were made for them by different means and to such different ends.

In a similar vein, I found the problem of metaphor extended to some of Zambreno’s digressions into theoretical literature. In one passage, she writes:

The women in our family threatening to maim or kill each other, often as a joke or expression of affection. I have inherited their brutal language. My mother: I’m going to take you out back and shoot you Katie. My grandmother: Come over here so I can slap you.

Immediately afterwards, and on the same page, she quotes:

Luce Irigaray: If we continue to speak the same language to each other, we are going to reproduce the same history.

The compulsion, here, to frame life writing within the metaphors of psychoanalytic theory, deprives Zambreno’s memories—which are tenderly drawn—of oxygen. By using this quotation from Irigaray’s ludic essay ‘When our Lips Speak Together’—a passionate text challenging psychoanalysis’ prioritisation of the phallus and male subjectivity—Zambreno seems to position these mothers’ dark jokes as evidence of intergenerational complicity with patriarchy. A real threat. And while that threat is real, and in fact permeates Book of Mutter as it permeates the lives of all women, the labour of proving it here seems unnecessary. Critical interjections like this one make up in large part Mutter’s voice, and at times can feel heavy handed.

The ‘uncategorizable’ template holds enormous promise for writers like Zambreno—intellectual, experimental, and deeply feeling—to offer up their lives as a textual thing. The play between philosophy and the body, poetry and life as it is lived, when perfectly balanced, offers the possibility of legitimacy that has historically been denied to authors who skirt the boundaries of sanctioned knowledge and the knowledge that comes from bearing witness to life.

Finding this balance, between theory and style, metaphor and authenticity, is a challenge unique to this mode of writing. Is experience the same as research? Not always, but it can be. Is emotion the true subject of theory? The only way an author can test this is by testing the limits of form.

Ellena Savage is an author and, currently, a PhD candidate. Her essays, poems, lectures, and short stories have been published and performed widely across Australian and international literary journals, anthologies, and cultural spaces, most recently: Literary Hub, Cordite, and The Lifted Brow, where she is a contributing editor and books columnist.